If I were a movie critic writing reviews of audience reactions to US President Donald Trump’s performances abroad, they would look something like this: “…a big hit in Riyadh”; “…a smash sensation across the Holy Land”; “…subdued, but a success in Vatican City”; and “…a disaster, a flop in Brussels”. Those were the reactions abroad.
The White House must be feeling quite good about the trip, since the President played to script and appeared to accomplish multiple objectives. He reset frayed relations and restored confidence with Gulf Arab allies—to the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars in arms sales and investment in infrastructure. He kept the Israelis swooning and the Palestinian Authority smiling—despite dodging questions about Jerusalem, settlements, and Palestinian Statehood. And he appeared respectful in the presence of Pope Francis, promising to keep in mind Francis’ words which most certainly dealt with the environment, immigration, and poverty.
After telling those audiences most of what they wanted to hear, the President appeared to take a U-turn in Europe blasting America’s closest allies over their failure to “burden share” and omitting any US commitment to the defence of fellow NATO members. Looking at the dour reactions of the assembled European heads of state, one might have thought Trump had simply tired of telling audiences what they wanted to hear, except for the fact that the audiences for whom he was performing in Brussels were not in those in the room. He was, instead, playing to his base back home and, maybe even to the Russians with whom Trump is also seeking to reset relations.
There were, to be sure, a few minor flubs that provided grist for the media mill, but on the whole the trip went as planned. Now, back in Washington, the hard work begins and is compounded by the fact that the President returns home facing even more crises than those he left behind.
The Russia affair remains front and centre with new questions being raised about the firing of FBI Director James Comey and the extent to which this firing was an effort by the President to obstruct the FBI’s investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election and Russian efforts to seek influence in the White House. Of special concern to the President, of course, will be the news that his son-in-law has now been ensnared in the net of this investigation.
If that weren’t problematic enough, Trump’s domestic agenda is also in tatters. His budget hit Congress with a dull thud and was pronounced “dead on arrival” by leading Republicans. The GOP-led Congressional Budget Office released its evaluation of the recently House-passed and White House-celebrated health care reform bill determining that under its provisions 23 million Americans would lose health insurance coverage. And, more recently, another Appeals Court overturned the President’s Executive Order banning travel to the US from six Muslim majority countries.
Reflecting this bad news, Trump’s favourable ratings continue their downward slide—with most reputable polls showing only a little more than a third of voters now approve of his job performance. Increasingly, Republicans in Congress, who are looking to their own re-elections in 2018, are beginning to see Trump, if not quite toxic, at least someone from whom they need some distance. And it is this that must be of the greatest concern to the White House since it will complicate efforts to advance not only their domestic agenda, but foreign policy initiatives, as well.
In just the past week, for example, there were signs of revolt. Senators watered down an Administration-supported tougher sanctions bill directed at Iran and proposed legislation placing some limits on arms sales to Saudi Arabia. In this environment, it will be problematic for Trump to advance Israeli-Palestinian peace by taking any steps that would challenge Israel’s occupation policies—something Congress would be loath to support.
So while the President had the stage to himself and was able to write his own script last week, he returns to a rather crowded stage in Washington and a high-stakes drama, the script for which is being written by others—Congress, the courts, the FBI and a special prosecutor, and the media. It remains to be seen how he well he will perform in this setting.