Trump's First Presidential Trip Abroad: What Could Go Wrong?
Misstatements or poorly balanced schedules can cause international incidents.
On my first presidential overseas trip I got stranded outside a Russian checkpoint, frantically texting sleeping colleagues about whether I could allow security guards to scan my bag. Later, in a McMansion-style villa on the Gulf of Finland, I staffed congressional calls on the proposed U.S. response to the Syrian chemical-weapons attacks, listened to an electronic accordion band with my boss during a late-night dinner, checked in to my hotel room around 3 a.m., and returned to the summit site four hours later. I helped draft, lost due to shaky IT systems, and then redrafted a joint statement on some crisis of the day, warned colleagues not to use the helpful USB drive “gift,” and returned to my seat on Air Force One hoping to sleep and confronted by a 3-inch stack of paper requiring immediate attention faxed to me by helpful colleagues in DC.
That was a normal day on a normal presidential trip.
President Trump has begun his first international trip of his administration and his senior staff are reported to be looking forward to resetting “the narrative of his presidency.” All of them, no doubt, are hoping for some productive time away from Washington and the hungry maw of Congress, the press, and late-night TV.
I’d recommend they keep their expectations modest.
Presidential travel is an exercise in the awe-inspiring global leadership, logistical magic, and teamwork. In my brief time traveling with President Obama while serving on the National Security Council staff, some colleagues enjoyed overseas jaunts as a blissful respite from the demands of domestic politics and crushing schedules of the West Wing. Most of us, however, viewed such trips as a strangely curated mobile White House bubble, where the comforts of home are partially available but never quite right. Even the simplest, most exquisitely planned trip, executed by the most experienced officials in the friendliest of allied locations, will for staff have elements of tragedy, comedy, and an abiding sense that you will be fired at any moment.
Recent presidents have started slow, with short jaunts to Mexico or Canada to stretch their own and their travel team’s legs. In contrast, Trump’s first trip is bigly. In the face of this nine-day adventure, any sane White House denizen would quail, with the absolute certainty that by day 4, most staff would be miserable and opportunities for screwing up would grow. Trump’s proposed schedule of five countries, two summits, three holy sites, and a Toby Keith concert in Riyadh would fell a fantasy team of commanders-in-chief and West Wing veterans.
The challenges start the minute you get on Air Force One. The president has his own small suite, complete with bed and shower, so that he may arrive rested, refreshed, and ready to conduct foreign policy in any setting. For his senior staff no such luck. This is an exceptionally nice plane and the Air Force One personnel are angels sent from above, but amid the clack of laptops, the mid-air calls (everyone phones their mom), and the few bathrooms available for quick changes, staff will sleep poorly. Further, on realizing that the plane has internet (speeds a la 1999) and the slowest printer known to man, earth-bound colleagues will flood inboxes with tasks demanding instant attention. Even if you are mercifully granted a few hours’ rest, the dynamic of sleeping in a roomful of colleagues in pajama-like active wear, some of whom stole all the pillows and/or are maybe backstabbing you in the Post, is too awkward for solid shut-eye. So you arrive exhausted, and are welcomed by jet lag that never quite goes away. Falling asleep mid-sensitive bilateral or audience with the Pope will happen.
At some point prior to landing, a team will brief the president on his first engagement in country. According to reports, the White House has chosen to include no national-security staff on board with the president other than National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, placing a burden on him to manage any questions or policy changes. (I have vivid memories of frantically updating talking points as our flight descended into an Asian capital while the printer lazily chewed through the text, wondering for days if I’d made an absurd typo and ruined everything.) McMaster and team will remind the president of key deliverables and warn against sensitive issues to avoid—and given that Saudi Arabia and Israel come first in the itinerary, there are hundreds. Both explaining and absorbing such information is trying for even seasoned diplomats.
When the president travels, he rolls deep. In each location, hundreds of hotel rooms are booked to accommodate the necessary security, travel planning, transportation, medical, and policy staff. Marine One and “the Beast” come along for the ride, along with transportation for staff (“I have the world’s largest carbon footprint,” former President Obama once noted). The hotels all these people stay in, with many areas limited to the delegation and stocked with White House communications equipment, do not quite feel like another country.
Despite this mobile support system, overseas travel schedules are punishing even for those used to them. Bilateral meetings, receptions, lengthy formal meals, meet-and-greets with embassy staff, speeches, and civil-society outreach will be crammed into single days, each of which require specialized preparation, agendas, and messaging. Misstatements or poorly balanced schedules can cause international incidents (see Trump’s likely well-intentioned but bizarre 15 minute visit to Yad Vashem). Negotiating with host governments is a delicate dance of cultural sensitivities, security, and the laws of physics. Underwhelming or uncoordinated deliverables can generate last-minute chaos to fix them. Critical wardrobe items will be forgotten (no small matter in the Vatican or Riyadh).
While all this is going on, Washington is going on too. Traveling staff are pressed to continue doing their day jobs, responding to issues in Washington while staffing the president in his international engagements. This is a feat they will do poorly—everything is harder on travel. Email is slower, printing is harder, time zones will defeat your attempts at phone calls, and yes, you did just miss the motorcade.
Normally, the Washington White House is glad to have the traveling team gone—schedules ease and the possibility of eating dinner arises. This trip, because the president is taking his entire trusted inner ring, expect DC-based underlings to be frantic for guidance. Amid domestic crises too numerous to list, the travel team will wake to the previous night’s scoops and have few back-ups in Washington to help them bear the brunt. Press with the president, press in DC, and international press will all want a reaction at all hours. And just when you need refueling, food is often bizarrely absent. The Navy mess usually takes care of the president, but his staff wait hungry in back rooms— I’m not proud, I once scrounged for chicken wings in a prime minister’s personal kitchen. To top that off, getting sick on a trip, even surrounded by a team of superb medical staff, is common, as President George H.W. Bush found in Japan (I personally spent my last moments on an Air Force One trip throwing up in the head immediately after my farewell photo with the president).
No one is at their best under these circumstances. So when a crisis hits somewhere in the world, any allure of foreign travel will wear thin. Adversaries are well aware that extended trips are a disorganized and distracted time. News will travel more slowly than expected. Despite the traveling West Wing bubble, there will likely be no talking heads on TV in staff hold rooms, email will arrive in short, a-contextual bursts, and an executive used to an extensive diet of cable news will feel starved. The disconnect many administrations can experience on travel is difficult to describe. The Obama administration felt it, as prior administrations have, when abroad during and after terrorist incidents; the fear at home did not easily penetrate through time zones, nor did the president’s sincere concern.
Despite all this stress, much of the substance of international presidential travel can be boring. Key deliverables and joint statements are generally worked out in advance. Summits, like the NATO and G-7 events the president will attend, are fairly scripted. Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates once confessed to bringing crossword puzzles. For a commander-in-chief who likes to personally close major deals, this set-up may be suffocating. And in many cases, he’ll experience this frustration largely unsupervised—summits can involve meetings with few “plus ones.” McMaster will also likely meet individually with his own counterparts to do business away from his boss. How a president new to this pace of diplomacy will react to such circumstances—and whether he will try to create his own dramatic outcomes—will be something worth watching.
Still, presidential trips are an unmatched opportunity to set a proactive foreign-policy agenda and form bonds with counterparts, as well as a chance for Trump to see the marvelous talents of his largely career and military support staff across many federal agencies in action. Things will go wrong, and Trump and his team should expect them, particularly given the itinerary they have selected. If anything, perhaps this experience will give the president more trust in his bureaucracy’s resilience and support, and increase his willingness to hear their advice.