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The possible wins and potential pitfalls of Trump’s first overseas trip

May 18, 2017 at 6:35 PM EDT
President Trump leaves Friday for his first overseas trip, with visits planned for Saudi Arabia, Israel, the West Bank, the Vatican for an audience with the pope and to Sicily for a G7 Summit. Judy Woodruff gets perspectives from former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Stephen Hadley, a former national security advisor, on how the president plans to tackle policy on the world stage.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: President Trump, as we have been reporting, leaves tomorrow for his first overseas trip, and it’s a long, intense schedule. He will travel to Saudi Arabia, Israel, the West Bank, the Vatican for an audience with the pope, on to NATO headquarters in Brussels, and, finally, next Friday, to Sicily for a G7 meeting.

A short time ago, I spoke to two people with lengthy experience in American diplomacy and foreign affairs, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who served in the Bill Clinton administration, and Stephen Hadley, who was George W. Bush’s national security adviser.

I started by asking Secretary Albright about her expectations for the president’s ambitious trip.

MADELEINE ALBRIGHT, Former U.S. Secretary of State: Well, I think it’s a very complicated trip.

Just think about it, going to Saudi Arabia, meeting with a lot of Muslim leaders, as well as the leadership there, then in Israel, then meeting with President Abbas, then going to Rome, the Vatican, to meet with the pope, then going to NATO, then the G7. What could possibly go wrong?

And it is a very tiring trip. And I think the question is, what is the purpose of it in terms of showing support for what’s going on in the Middle East? And I think the question is what they want to accomplish.

But I think it has — I don’t think we should have a low bar for it, however, because there’s an awful lot that needs to be done. It’s just a very long trip.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Do you think, Steve Hadley, that the possibilities for success are greater than the pitfalls? I’m reading a lot in the coverage of — running up to the trip that the expectation is there are many places where there could be a problem.

STEPHEN HADLEY, Former U.S. National Security Adviser: Well, yes and no. I mean, it will be the first time that the world will see President Trump as president on the world stage. It’s important that it succeeds for him and for our country that it succeeds.

I think the first part of the trip, you know, the people in the Middle East really want to have a strong relationship with this administration, want it — our policy to go in a little bit of a different direction, being a little more confrontational with Iran, being a little more aggressive against ISIS, reconnecting with the traditional allies.

And so I think Israel, Saudi, the Palestinians, they all have an interest in making this trip successful for their own purposes. And, you know, meeting with the pope, you know, is usually a win for any president.

So, I think the first half of the trip ought to go pretty well. More concerned about late in the trip, when the president’s a little tired, more problematic meeting with the E.U., meeting with NATO. G7, again, probably ought to be a little downhill because it’s with our traditional friends and allies.

So, it’s — but it’s going to be grueling. It’s a long period of time. The president hasn’t done this kind of trip as president. The days are long and the agenda. So, it’s going to be — this is not easy. But he’s someone who, you know, knows how to be in front of the camera, and is comfortable being in that position.

So, I think it will probably go pretty well.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Secretary Albright, so, while the president is taking off on this trip, a lot of controversy he’s leaving behind here at home over the firing of the FBI director, the naming of a special counsel to look into the Russia — potential Russia connections between his campaign, the leaking, alleged leaking of classified information to Russian officials by the president himself.

How much does all that back home hang over a trip when a president travels?

MADELEINE ALBRIGHT: I think it definitely does hang on it.

But the other part that I think people don’t recognize often, you take press with you, and it’s American press. And I know from various times that I traveled is issues that are going on at home are asked by the American reporters.

And so it’s very hard to insulate yourself from that. And the question will be, I think he can probably be very calm in terms of talking about what the foreign policy agenda is. He may get irritated at some of the ways that the questions are asked about what’s going on at home. And then it isn’t as if the Russians are just going to be silent.

They are having a very good time kind of observing the turbulence that’s going on. And something that you ran yesterday, it was very clear that they said they looked at the turbulence of information with pleasure.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Stephen Hadley, what about this question about so much smoke, controversy here at home? How much do those headlines and those — does that follow him, the president, when he travels?

STEPHEN HADLEY: As Madeleine says, it follows him, because he takes a press corps with him.

And I think, in all these trips, the press is more interested in asking the president questions about the issues that are driving the debate in Washington, and less interested in asking about the trip, which is the challenge, to try to get their message through in terms of this trip. And they will do it by what the president says, about the meetings, about the visuals, about the deliverables from — come to the trip.

But the challenge will be to get the message from the trip and the success they hope to get from this — the trip to make it back to the United States and back to the American people, over the effort by the press to make it all about what’s going on in Washington.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, one of the things — I was at a briefing at the White House today, Secretary Albright, and they are talking about, you know, how pleased they are to be bringing together so many Muslim countries to step up the fight against terrorism.

If that’s what they’re able to do with this meeting in Saudi Arabia, how significant is that?

MADELEINE ALBRIGHT: Well, I think it would be significant, but it’s not easy.

And, basically, if they have all the Muslims, there will be Sunni and Shia, which is then reflected in their relationship with Iran. Iran will be a sub-subject, no matter what, basically it’s basically — I think, whenever we have been with the Saudis, it is very clear that that is their number one nemesis.

And so the question is how the president works his way through that. I do think that what Steve said is absolutely right, is they are — the Saudis want to have a good meeting. They are about to get a very large deliverable, which is an arms sale. And then they want to be the center of new activity.

Actually, I think, Steve, they might have read our report, in terms of …

(LAUGHTER)

MADELEINE ALBRIGHT: … we were talking about the importance of having a regional organization. They are talking, and so is the president, about doing something about that.

So they do want to make it work. But the Muslim part of this is complicated, especially since there are Muslims who believe that President Trump doesn’t like Muslims. And I — if I were a journalist, I would ask about the ban.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, and which the president talked about during the campaign, but has soft-pedaled as president.

Steve Hadley, if — again, if the administration is able to pull together of something together in the way of an announcement from a group of Muslim countries that they are spending more on counterterrorism, how significant?

STEPHEN HADLEY: I think it will be significant.

And I think what the president is going to try to do — and I think one of the most important pieces of this trip, I understand he’s going to give a speech in Saudi Arabia. I think that speech will be very important.

I think what they want to do is to show that they are working with and rallying the Muslim world to be in solidarity against the extremists, to have the capabilities to cut off their money, and to really be in solidarity, and committed in a way that many Americans think Muslim countries in that region have not been committed against terrorism.

If he can come back with that message, I think that’s a win for him.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Is that something, though, that makes a difference in the fight against terrorism?

MADELEINE ALBRIGHT: Well, I think it would if it really has everybody working together. I do think it’s very important to get the Muslim community to recognize that ISIS is — has hijacked a religion that is a peaceful religion.

So — but I think the difficulties of writing a speech such as this one and kind of touching the bases and using the right adjectives and a number of different things that we have all been through, it is a — it’s not going to be simple.

I do think that there are possibilities here, the whole kind of Arab initiative initially on the Middle East peace process, the extent to which the president is willing to get into that. But there is nothing more dangerous than making a mistake on some of the issues, because they all have a great history, and you really do have to study it.

I think we did. And so that’s the question about how much homework the president has done.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And just quickly, Steve Hadley, that is another message coming from the White House today, from a White House official, saying they have high hopes, that, yes, it’s just the beginning, but they do believe they can start to make progress on an Israeli-Palestinian agreement.

STEPHEN HADLEY: I think that’s right.

And I think we shouldn’t have too exaggerated expectations of this trip. I think you ought to think about it as, it’s a debut for the president to show himself as president on the world stage, and to try to set the table now for some initiatives and strategies that will be fully developed in the weeks and months ahead that might achieve some off these objectives.

If they can do those two things, it will be a successful trip.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, we will all be watching very closely.

MADELEINE ALBRIGHT: And I think we wish him well for the United States, for the sake of the United States and the Middle East.

STEPHEN HADLEY: Absolutely.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Thank you, both.

MADELEINE ALBRIGHT: Thank you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Secretary Madeleine Albright, Steve Hadley.

STEPHEN HADLEY: Nice to be with you.

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