A cloud of scandal and uncertainty will follow Donald Trump to five countries on his first overseas trip as president beginning this weekend. And it could only grow more ominous by the time he returns.
When Trump boards Air Force One on Friday, he will leave behind a growing pile of smoldering scandals, mostly of his own creation.
Overseas, he plans to press Middle East leaders to step up their efforts against the Islamic State and NATO members to spend more on the trans-Atlantic alliance. But he’ll now do so as a wounded president, one who is almost certain to return to a political environment at home that features very few allies and a domestic agenda in jeopardy.
Accompanying Trump to Saudi Arabia, Israel, the Vatican, Belgium and Italy are a slew of bombshells that have left him limping. The Department of Justice on Wednesday appointed former FBI Director Robert Mueller as special counsel to take on the investigation of alleged Russian election meddling — including possible ties between Trump’s campaign and the Kremlin. Democrats are claiming he obstructed justice — and some in Washington, just 119 days into his term, are already using the I-word (impeachment).
Members from both parties in both chambers already say the mounting White House scandals have become a drag on the House and Senate’s work.
House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Jason Chaffetz has requested the FBI turn over “all memoranda, notes, summaries, and recordings referring or relating to any communications between [ousted FBI Director James B.] Comey and the president.” The Utah Republican is demanding them by next Wednesday — right in the middle of Trump’s diplomatic swing.
Pause in the process
Several senior members of Trump’s own party said Wednesday the entire political process essentially is and will remain frozen until the Comey matter is behind lawmakers and the White House.
“I think we’re moving forward in some ways, but whenever you have something like this, it’s very difficult to move forward because it requires people’s attention, and it’s being diverted,” Senate Armed Services Chairman John McCain said.
“This is a centipede, which I’ve said for weeks now, a new shoe drops every day or two and there’s a new aspect of this,” added McCain, an Arizona Republican and the GOP’s 2008 presidential nominee. “This is unfortunately consuming a great deal of our time and effort. … We need to move forward.”
Asked if the White House scandals are hampering Senate business, Oklahoma Republican James M. Inhofe responded: “I think it is a distraction.”
Senate Judiciary member Lindsey Graham issued a statement Wednesday urging the former FBI director to testify in public soon, bluntly warning that “the sooner Mr. Comey testifies publicly before the Judiciary Committee, the better for our nation.”
“For all practical purposes the political process will be ground to a halt by these allegations,” said Graham, a South Carolina Republican. “It is imperative we move forward on this matter in a professional and serious manner. … I will follow the facts — wherever they may lead.”
GOP Rep. Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania, co-chairman of the moderate Tuesday Group, put it this way: “I would say very candidly that the disruptions, the eruptions, the distractions are interfering with the agenda because the whole narrative becomes the latest distraction.”
Veteran Democratic members said the stream of negative headlines from the White House is threatening to sink even domestic issues on which there could be some bipartisan agreement, such as a tax cut package and the president’s envisioned massive infrastructure project.
“I think [Republicans] are walking on eggshells,” Michigan Rep. Sander M. Levin said Wednesday. “We’ve never had a thorough discussion about how we would ever finance infrastructure. So far, we’ve done almost nothing on almost anything. … I think it’s a major distraction.”
Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger said the root of the problem is “the focus is on [Trump] every single day — and his tweet of the day.”
“For all the issues, all the promises he made in the election to help people and create jobs, he’s distracting Congress,” the Maryland Democrat said. “We have to encourage him to lead and to think not about himself, but … what’s best for the country.”
As Trump departs on Friday, McCain said he can still have a successful debut on the global stage despite the scandals at home.
“Even at the height of Watergate, [Richard] Nixon was able to conduct national security policy,” he said. “I think it affects more of the domestic agenda.”
Ruppersberger, a former House Intelligence ranking member, however, said leaders in four countries he recently visited — Estonia, Iraq, Poland and Ukraine — are “concerned” about the new U.S. president and the issues plaguing him.
“He’s distracting everybody,” Ruppersberger said. “This makes us look weak throughout the world.”
Trump and his senior aides have high hopes for the trip. They have been eager to cast the president as plunging the United States back into global affairs, arguing that his predecessor, Barack Obama, made Washington a bit player in the Middle East and beyond.
For instance, in Saudi Arabia, the White House is planning for Trump to address more than 50 leaders of Muslim countries, a speech national security adviser H.R. McMaster on Tuesday forcefully billed as “an inspiring, yet direct, speech on the need to confront radical ideology and … the president’s hopes for a peaceful vision of Islam to dominate across the world.”
While visiting the Western Wall in Jerusalem, Trump will not be accompanied by any Israeli leader, the White House announced Tuesday. The solo appearance appears to be a message to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other officials that Trump plans to be a tough participant in any Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.
And a few days later at a summit of leaders of NATO countries in Brussels, Trump will both “reaffirm America’s commitment to the alliance” while also reminding them in person of “his insistence that, for the good of the alliance, all members must share responsibility and share burdens,” McMaster said.
Trump did not directly address the list of scandals plaguing his presidency on Wednesday, but two days before heading overseas, he seemed both in a fighting mood and under siege. During a commencement ceremony at the Coast Guard Academy in Greenwich, Connecticut, he told graduates to always “fight, fight, fight” and to “never, ever, give up.” He advised them to be prepared to deal with things that are “not always fair” or that they “don’t always deserve.”
The commander in chief told them to merely “look at the way I’ve been treated lately, especially by the media.” Trump contended that “no politician in history” — presumably of the world — “has been treated worse or more unfairly.”
“You can’t let them get you down,” he said of “critics and naysayers,” before adding this: “Adversity makes you stronger.”