Putting ‘America First,’ Trump said to plan lighter foreign travel than predecessors
WASHINGTON– President Donald Trump, who entered office vowing to prioritize American workers and issues, has told his advisers to plan a lighter schedule of foreign travel than his recent predecessors, according to people familiar with the conversations.
Trump has told his team that he doesn’t want lengthy trips abroad to distract from his focus on domestic issues in the United States, according to people who have spoken to him about his travel plans.
And he’s cited the negotiating advantage of meeting leaders at the White House — a symbol of American power — instead of on foreign turf as a reason to put off a major foreign tour.
Scheduled to first travel outside the country in May for a Group of 7 meeting in Sicily, Trump will lag more than a month-and-a-half behind recent past presidents, who all left for diplomatic trips within the first three months of taking office.
Trump has also agreed to attend a May summit meeting of NATO leaders in Brussels, where the defense alliance is headquartered, and a G20 summit in Germany in July. In addition, he’s accepted invitations to visit the United Kingdom and Japan.
But on those trips, aides expect the President to remain abroad for only the shortest time possible before returning stateside. That directive maps closely to Trump’s travel style as a chief executive, when he would fly his private jet abroad for business meetings but rarely lingered for long.
Since President Ronald Reagan, first-term presidents have traveled to a contiguous US neighbor before early April as their international debut: Barack Obama visited Canada on February 19, 2009; George W. Bush traveled to Mexico on February 16, 2001; Bill Clinton went to Canada April 3-4, 1993; George H.W. Bush journeyed to Mexico February 10, 1989; and Ronald Reagan stopped in Canada March 10-11, 1981.
Trump has not scheduled a trip north or south of the border, though Prime Minister Justin Trudeau invited him to visit Canada during a phone call shortly after Trump was elected last November.
The delay is not necessarily a surprise. Trump has espoused an “America First” agenda that he says prioritizes the United States’ needs over those of other nations.
As a candidate, Trump told the UK’s Independent newspaper that he wasn’t planning on traveling abroad in order to focus his attention on US problems.
“I’ve got no time to travel — America needs my attention now,” Trump told the paper. “To be honest with you, this country is in such bad trouble, our infrastructure is crumbling, our bridges, our airports. We are in such trouble that I am going to spend a lot of time here.”
After taking office, Trump declared at a gathering of conservative activists that he wasn’t aiming to act as a global leader.
“I’m not representing the globe, I’m representing your country,” he said last month at the Conservative Political Action Conference outside Washington.
For a businessman highly attuned to the atmospherics of power, a trip to a foreign outpost for talks could involve obstacles. As President, Trump has preferred to host his meetings in the Oval Office, a suite of stately West Wing conference rooms, or — better yet — the living room at Mar-a-Lago, the Florida estate which he owns and which is undoubtedly his own domain.
Trump has maintained a steady pace of phone calls with his foreign counterparts, and has welcomed four leaders to the White House in his first seven weeks in office. This week he’ll welcome two more: German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Irish Taoiseach Enda Kenny.
Abroad, Trump would be in someone else’s realm, a position he’s arduously avoided for most of his career. On a presidential foreign trip, Trump would find himself in some uncomfortable scenarios, according to people familiar with his preferred style of working and traveling.
For starters, he would be obliged to sleep in a bed that’s not his own — an experience he avoided while running for office and has not endured since becoming president. A homebody who regularly traveled across half the country to return to his New York apartment each night during the campaign, Trump has worked to avoid putting himself in unfamiliar settings for extended periods at a time.
A person who traveled with Trump during his tenure atop the Trump Organization said the billionaire businessman did not especially enjoy foreign travel: He did not easily adjust to time zone changes, he was wary of exotic cuisines and he rarely spent more than a night in a foreign country. The person spoke anonymously to describe private details about Trump’s travel.
For a President and his aides, foreign travel can be a grueling slog. Meetings regularly begin as soon as Air Force One touches down in a far-flung time zone, leaving little time for a commander-in-chief to adjust to a new setting.
Visits in foreign capitals often involve state dinners that extend late into the evening, followed by early talks the next day. Visits to yearly summits like the G7, G20, NATO, or the paired Association of Southeast Asian Nations and Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forums usually require sitting in lengthy meetings that can stretch hours.
Even Obama, who entered office eager to bolster those types of multilateral organizations, occasionally flagged during the seemingly endless set of plenary sessions and meet-and-greets that comprise a foreign summit. He regularly chomped away at Nicorette gum as he listened to translated speeches from his counterparts.
During his time in office, Trump has demonstrated an appetite for shorter, rapid-pace meetings with large groups.
Trump is also set to be met with protests when he leaves the United States, a likelihood that’s already complicated plans for some foreign leaders who have extended invitations to Trump.
A state visit to the United Kingdom, which British Prime Minister Theresa May announced in January, was originally expected early in Trump’s term, UK officials said privately. Now, the visit to expected to come later this summer or in the fall.
In delaying the trip — potentially to a period when Parliament is not in session — the White House and 10 Downing Street could avoid the optics of having Trump refused a speaking slot at Westminster.
Trump may be avoiding Canada — a traditional first foreign trip for a new president — for similar reasons. He’s not popular among Canadians, both in government and outside, though Prime Minister Trudeau has worked toward establishing pragmatic working ties.
One person close to Trudeau said the liberal leader doesn’t feel slighted by Trump’s late RSVP to the invite he extended in November, despite the practices of past US presidents to visit Canada early in their tenures. Trudeau himself visited the White House on February 13 and put forward a show of comity, despite his deep differences with Trump on most policy matters.
In skipping Canada as his first jaunt out of the country, however, Trump is passing up the opportunity to give his team a lower-key debut on the world stage.
“One of the reasons why it’s been a common destination is because it’s helped the new administration have a dry run,” said Laura Dawson, the director of the Canada Institute at the Wilson Center in Washington. “It’s easy foreign travel.”
Dawson said Trump would likely be met by protests in Canada should he travel there now — though that scenario is likely to occur wherever the controversial US president travels. Still, Dawson said, there are few hard feelings about Trump’s absence.
“It’s not like Canadians are sitting around feeling snubbed,” she said.