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Trump’s Russia troubles dog him right up the start of first foreign trip

The US President will be out of the US for nine days, his first test on the world stage, and will be watched very closely.

world Updated: May 20, 2017 08:39 IST
Yashwant Raj
Donald Trump during a joint news conference with Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos at the White House.
Donald Trump during a joint news conference with Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos at the White House.(NYT)

Donald Trump on Friday will start his first overseas trip as US president, hoping to put behind, for a while at least, an escalating controversy about his campaign aides’ alleged contacts with Russia during the 2016 election and his own role in and his attempts to trying to quash an FBI investigation into it.

In remarks on Thursday, Trump tried clear his name, saying, “There is no collusion between certainly myself and my campaign, but I can always speak for myself -- and the Russians, zero.” He was clearly not going to stand surety for his aides any longer.

Especially not for his first national security adviser Michael Flynn, who has been the most damaging for the Trump administration. New revelations shows he was hired despite his own admission to being under an FBI probe. Questions are being raised thus about Vice President Mike Pence now, who had headed the transition team.

“Getting ready for my big foreign trip,” Trump tweeted, hours before taking off. “Will be strongly protecting American interests — that’s what I like to do!” There was no mention of Russia, former FBI director James Comey, or Robert Mueller, the special counsel who now heads the Russia probe.

Trump’s aides have said the trip is about reaffirming America’s global leadership, building key relationships with key world leaders and “broadcast a message of unity to America’s friends and to the faithful of three of the world’s greatest religions”.

“No president has ever visited the homelands and holy sites of the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim faiths all on one trip,” national security adviser HR McMaster told reporters recently, adding that Trump was trying to “unite peoples of all faiths around a common vision of peace, progress, and prosperity”.

Trump starts the trip in Saudi Arabia, a key US ally in West Asia and home to Islam’s holiest sites, then goes to Israel when he meets both Israeli and Palestinian leaders, then to Rome to meet the Pope, and then to Brussels for a Nato leaders’ meeting, before travelling back to Italy for a G7 summit.

He will be out of the US for nine days, a long time for a homebody like Trump — he famously returned home to his own bed most nights on the campaign trail. He wanted to cut the trip down to five days, according to some reports. And it will be his first test on the world stage, and will be watched just as closely.

For now, Trump might just like to escape the withering scrutiny he has faced in the last few days at home — first for firing Comey, then for muddling the reasons for it, then threatening him with “tapes”, and being hit in return with leaks about his alleged attempts to kill the FBI probe.

There is also the case of special counsel Mueller — Trump has called his appointment a “witch-hunt”, and repeated it on Thursday.

“I respect the move, but the entire thing has been a witch-hunt,” Trump told reporters at a news conference with visiting Columbian President Juan Manuel Santos. “I think it divides the country. I think we have a very divided country because of that and many other things.”