PARIS — For most presidents, traveling abroad offers a special opening to pivot away from domestic political challenges, as network news anchors officiously narrate bilateral meetings and the pomp of ceremonial global gatherings.
But when President Trump visits France this weekend to commemorate the centennial of World War I’s end, experts doubt he will gain a free pass from the news cycle dominated by his firing Wednesday of Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Republicans’ loss of the House of Representatives on Tuesday.
“In the past, there used to be an understanding that when the president was abroad, criticism by other politicians was muted. But that’s obviously changed, and with a contentious election and the Sessions news, criticism of the president will continue,” said Tizoc Chavez, a presidential diplomacy expert at Vanderbilt University.
Chavez said Trump could benefit from photo opportunities depicting him as a statesman and world leader but that other names on the guest list imperil his reprieve.
Anticipated guests included Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, with whom Trump has clashed on Iran policy and the detention of American pastor Andrew Brunson, released last month. The events are hosted by French President Emmanuel Macron, who has pushed back against Trump on trade and Iran policy.
“Since this is a commemoration, I don’t expect any confrontations, but Trump is unpredictable and who knows what he might say or do that might attract negative press,” Chavez said. “The fact that Vladimir Putin is going to be in France is, I think, a potential danger for the president. He needs to be very careful how he acts around the Russian president. Especially with the Sessions resignation.”
Trump fired Sessions on Wednesday after more than a year fuming at the attorney general’s recusal from oversight of special counsel Robert Mueller’s sprawling investigation, which began as a probe of possible Trump campaign collusion with Russia. His replacement at the Justice Department, acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker, argued last year that Trump’s finances and business dealings should be off-limits to Mueller.
It’s unclear if Trump and Putin will meet in France, as U.S. media outlets speculate on potential Mueller indictments following a pre-election pause.
Talks between Putin and Trump were announced last month by national security adviser John Bolton, before both sides downplayed potential discussions in an apparent nod to French hosts concerned about a distraction from the elaborate ceremonies. At an explosive first summit in July, Trump appeared to accept Putin’s denial of 2016 election meddling, contradicting the findings of U.S. intelligence agencies and federal prosecutors. Trump later said he misspoke.
White House officials previewed the events in a Wednesday afternoon call with reporters, describing Trump as focused on commemorating soldiers who died in the war, with visits to two cemeteries near Paris.
After arriving in France on Friday night, Trump will visit the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery on Saturday — about two hours from Paris and adjacent to the Belleau Wood battlefield — and on Sunday, Trump will speak at the Suresnes American Cemetery on the outskirts of Paris, where he is expected to deliver a traditional Veterans Day address.
Outlining lofty ideals, a senior Trump administration official said, “the primary purpose of the visit is to participate in the Armistice Day centennial commemoration that will take place on Nov. 11.”
“This is a historic opportunity to honor the sacrifices of those who gave their lives for our freedom in that struggle,” the official said. “The president’s participation in these events will also serve as the reminder of the important role that the United States has played and continues to play in ensuring peace and security in Europe.”
The only scheduled bilateral meeting is with French host Macron on Saturday, officials said.
Princeton University political historian Julian Zelizer said typical rules about foreign travel may not apply to Trump, who has reshaped American politics with his blunt and unpredictable style, which Trump occasionally contrasts with the “presidential” but boring style of his predecessors.
“The attraction of overseas trips after midterms is that you can talk about other things and act presidential when everyone else is acting political. You can announce big diplomatic agreements or have good photo-ops overseas. This is doubly true in the middle of a moment like the Sessions firing,” he said.
Zelizer said, however, “the press is such now that there is no sharp break when the president goes overseas and equally important, Trump doesn’t really have the knack of acting presidential.”