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.