When things are going bad in Washington, it is almost always a good idea to get out of town. As the Trump administration knows all too well, when you have a lot of staff talking to reporters, a president whose tweets cannot be contained, and a press with an insatiable need to pounce on and criticize the president, it creates a fragile environment and the result is often nothing less than chaos. But presidential trips overseas can leave some problems behind and begin a reset even if relief is only temporary.
When President Donald Trump departs Washington on Friday for a nine-day trip to Saudi Arabia, Israel, the Vatican, Brussels and Italy, most of his staff will be left behind and the traveling press corps will be more tightly managed by the foreign host. International visits also limit opportunities for the president to stray off-message.
Considering the host country has a vested interest in everything going smoothly, they try to script nearly every aspect of the American delegation’s trip. And from the White House’s perspective, Trump’s remarks will have been prepared days, if not weeks, ahead of time. That means it will be easier for the administration’s communication strategy to be coordinated and executed in unison.
I am sure Trump’s staff will find comfort and some confidence in knowing that his nonstop travel will be filled with plenty of photo-ops, pleasantries and handshakes to dilute the stories plaguing the administration at home. U.S. and foreign reporters will ask for comment on the stressful, topical issues, but it is up to the president to remain on message, surefooted, poised and in control of his words.
In the event that he adds a new dimension to the Russia investigation or the alleged revealing of classified information, the press will smell blood. They want the White House to overreact and sidetrack the message designed for the visit. But it will actually be easier to handle most problems while the president’s core staff are together on Air Force One, where there is usually a more collaborative vibe than when everyone is spread out and hunkered down in their individual White House offices taking phone calls from whoever. When the president travels abroad, decision makers are in close proximity to each other, the president is readily available and the distractions of a constantly ringing phone and endless meetings are lessened.
In general, the American public responds positively to seeing their president meeting with world leaders, reassuring them of our leadership abroad, and coming to agreements on matters of global importance. Trump’s meetings in Saudi Arabia, Israel and the Vatican are opportune settings for this administration to make a bold statement to the world that the United States is stronger and more committed than ever to leading. And in Brussels and Italy, where Trump will meet with world leaders at the NATO and Group of 7 summits, the administration can reaffirm the notion, as national security adviser H.R. McMaster argued last week, that “President Trump understands that America First does not mean America alone.”
Anyway, when the president takes off from Washington on Friday, it will be just him and his most senior council of aides and advisers. Opportunities for chaos-inducing leaks will be reduced, and the White House should be able to implement a classic communications plan of having the president’s picture in the news match the narrative of his day-to-day itinerary. That is assuming, of course, that he sticks to the script all the while remembering that the media wants him to do anything but that.
Given all that is going in Washington right now, perhaps Trump will show the world a side of himself that we have not seen enough of — one that is more polished, in control and reliably predictable. And a successful trip will show the White House staff in a positive light. A lot of people are pulling for them.
Republicans’ shoulders are slumping a little right now. Monday, Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, asked reporters, “Can we have a crisis-free day?” A solid, drama-free and serious overseas trip is just what the doctor ordered. Good luck.