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Trump's ambitious agenda abroad threatened by domestic scandals

CBS News logo CBS News 5 days ago Jacqueline Alemany and Kylie Atwood

President Donald Trump waves from Air Force One upon arrival at Groton-New London Airport in Connecticut, May 17, 2017, as he travels to the U.S. Coast Guard Academy Commencement ceremony.: President Trump © Saul Loeb / AFP/Getty Images President Trump President Donald Trump's first foreign trip, which will take him to five countries in nine days, will unfold against the backdrop of a growing political scandal at home.

And while hopes of deals with the U.S. have world leaders hailing his arrival, foreign governments are unlikely to ignore growing concerns about Mr. Trump's credibility and judgment.

Mr. Trump, an uneasy international traveler, has an ambitious schedule. He arrives in Saudi Arabia on Friday, where he'll spend two days in Riyadh. On Monday, he'll arrive in Israel on the first-ever flight from Riyadh to Tel Aviv to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

He'll spend Tuesday in Jerusalem and meet with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank. From there, Mr. Trump will head to Rome for a papal visit. He'll then stop in Brussels for the NATO summit. His trip will conclude in Taormina, Italy for the G7 conference of rich nations.  

Trump's distinct efforts to reshape his message into one of tolerance to all religions -- including Muslims – will be highlighted during his first stop in Saudi Arabia, where he will meet with leaders of more than 50 Muslim countries. Together they will be treated to a concert, only for men, headlined by American country music star Toby Keith.

The trip will also thrust the Trump foreign policy doctrine into the spotlight: the administration's belief that "America First" is fully compatible with its efforts to "reengage" with the world.

"The last administration wouldn't talk to people but lecture them," a senior administration official told CBS News. "We're not going to try to embarrass other people but find areas of increased cooperation." 

"Overseas he's getting a lot of credit. They understand there's a difference between his rhetoric and action," the senior administration official said. 

Saudi Arabia, an ultraconservative Islamic theocracy, was in some ways a surprising first destination for Mr. Trump. Until two weeks ago, Mr. Trump's campaign website featured a press release calling for a "total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country's representatives can figure out what is going on."

The statement, a response to the San Bernardino terrorist attack, was referenced by Mr. Trump repeatedly on the campaign trail, and only deleted after a reporter asked Press Secretary Sean Spicer why the language still existed on the president's website

Now, his message will be one of uniting the world against common enemies and demonstrating America's commitment to Muslim partners, according to the White House.

"He will deliver an inspiring, yet direct speech on the need to confront radical ideology and his hopes, the president's hopes for a peaceful vision of Islam to dominate across the world," National Security Adviser Gen. H.R. McMaster told reporters in a briefing last week of the president's objectives for the trip. "The speech is intended to unite the broader world."

Mr. Trump's speech on Islam is, oddly enough, being crafted by the same person who authored the language of the travel ban: Stephen Miller, a senior White House aide. 

Mr. Trump will also need to walk a fine line as he tries to talk about terrorism while preaching religious tolerance.  

"I think there is a problem in not admitting that there are significant factors -- theological and religious factors  -- that motivate groups like ISIS and Al Qaeda, and we need to confront these kinds of things. But at the same time, there is a thin line you cannot cross and accuse 1.5 billion Muslims of all believing in the same things," said Ali Soufan, the CEO of a strategic security intelligence group called the Soufan Group.

The Saudi government is excited for Mr. Trump's arrival, which they hope will help renew their partnership with the U.S. and revive their own economy. The U.S. plans to announce an arms deal valued at $100 billion dollars with Saudi Arabia during the trip. It is expected that the wealthy Arab nation will also roll out a massive investment in U.S. infrastructure. Mr. Trump is additionally thought to be preparing to announce his support for an "Arab NATO" to counter growing Iranian influence. 

"Frankly, the Saudis are really looking forward to meeting the president. They couldn't wait for Obama to leave office," Soufan said. "He has in his pocket billions of dollars of military equipment and hardware for them, overlooking the human rights issues that prohibited this stuff under Obama."

The president's harsh characterization of the Iran nuclear deal as the "worst deal ever," an agreement which President Obama stuck two years ago, also excites the Saudis. The administration continues to review the deal, but shows no signs of ripping it up anytime soon. 

Greasing the wheels for Trump's touchdown in the Riyadh, two days before his trip, the Trump administration slapped additional sanctions on the Iranian regime's ballistic missile program.

Israeli leaders, meanwhile, also want to see him pull out of the Iran deal and continue to invest in their country, and have high hopes about what Mr. Trump could do to boost their standing in the region.

They marvel at Mr. Trump's acceptance of his daughter Ivanka's conversion to Judaism and his embrace of his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who was raised in an Orthodox Jewish family. Both Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner will join the president on the trip.

But there is pressure being put on how far Trump will go -- or how far he won't go -- in advocating for the Jewish state. In particular, the president had promised to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, but that plan has been put aside for now.

"There will be a lot of listening, assessing situation," a senior administration official said, hedging on future prospects of an embassy move. "After this trip we will take the temperature of the area." 

When Trump visits the Vatican, the White House says he will celebrate the Catholic religion and the contributions of Catholics to America. Yet it may be a turbulent visit. Numerous church officials have criticized the president on his immigration policies, efforts to repeal Obamacare and plans for a border wall. 

"I look forward to speaking with the Pope about how Christian teachings can help put the world on a path to justice, freedom, and peace," Mr. Trump said in his weekly address released on Friday.

Early in 2016, the Pope questioned Trump's Christian identity. "A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian," he told reporters. Mr. Trump's response at the time: "For a religious leader to question a person's faith is disgraceful."

But beyond the campaign rhetoric and on-the-ground frustrations, perhaps the biggest cloud looming over Trump's trip are investigations and allegations that embroil his administration at home.

On Thursday, Trump flatly denied colluding with the Russian government during the election and reports that he told the FBI Director to shut down an investigation into one of his top aides. For his administration, this international trip is seen as a respite from the domestic turmoil.

"I think the people in rest of the world do not have the time to pay attention to what's happening domestically here," Tillerson said when asked about how the tense national atmosphere will hinder the president's trip. "They are more concerned about what they see happening in the relationship with their country and what we are bringing to address these very serious challenges that are affecting all of us."

But experts who know the region push back on the secretary's assessment.

"People in government make it their business to know," Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East Program at CSIS, says of Mr. Trump's controversies at home.

"The president has larger messaging issues than hitting the capitals of the three great religions right now."

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