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President Donald Trump sets off on his first international trip Friday to the Middle East and Europe, no doubt hoping to leave behind a string of political firestorms that have raged for most of the past week over his firing of FBI Director James Comey, his sharing of classified intelligence with Russian officials, and reports that he pressed Comey to end the investigation into his former national security adviser Michael Flynn's ties to Russia.
But at the heart of the domestic baggage that will accompany the president on his trip is a central concern over Trump’s credibility, now under fire by Democrats and a number of Republicans.
The political turmoil was clearly on the president’s mind Wednesday as he offered advice to U.S. Coast Guard cadets at their commencement in Connecticut.
“Never, ever, ever give up. Things will work out just fine,” Trump said. “Look at the way I’ve been treated lately, especially by the media. No politician in history, and I say this with great surety, has been treated worse or more unfairly. You can’t let them get you down. You can’t let the critics and the naysayers get in the way of your dreams.”
Focus on Comey
The Senate Intelligence Committee has asked Comey to appear in both public and private sessions, and a key House Republican, Representative Jason Chaffetz, chairman of the House Oversight Committee, is asking for all documents and possible recordings that detail any interactions between the president and Comey before the president fired him last week.
With the White House in turmoil and given the conflicting explanations on Comey’s firing, Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer wondered this week whether the president can be believed.
“There is a crisis of credibility in this administration, which will hurt us in ways almost too numerous to elaborate,” Schumer said on the Senate floor. “At the top of the list are an erosion of trust in the presidency and trust in America by our friends and allies.”
For the moment, Republicans seem split on how aggressively to move ahead, but they are concerned their congressional agenda is being derailed because of the White House crises.
House Speaker Paul Ryan told reporters Wednesday he wants to avoid “rushing to judgment.” Ryan said “our job is to be responsible, sober and focused only on gathering the facts.” Ryan also noted “there are people out there who want to harm the president.”
But other Republicans have expressed concern about the controversies that have engulfed the White House. “I think it would be helpful to have less drama emanating from the White House,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
The controversies hounding Trump at home are bound to follow the president on his overseas travel, said foreign policy analyst Anthony Cordesman at the Council for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
“One question everyone outside the United States has and are not likely to ask the president is, what is his actual political strength relative to the divisions with Congress, the problems within his own party and can he move forward with his own agenda?”
Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a frequent Republican critic of the president, suggested that Trump's overseas trip may be coming at a good time, telling the Associated Press that “a lot of us are glad he’s leaving for a few days.”
Graham said the controversies are likely to follow Trump on his trip, but he urged the president to “stay disciplined, stay focused and deliver on the world stage.”
Trump’s combative comments at the Coast Guard Academy Wednesday may be welcomed by his core supporters around the country, many of whom believe the establishment and news media are actively working against him.
But many analysts, including some Republicans, see the president’s combative nature as a problem, especially during a crisis.
“He has promised to disrupt the status quo, which he has certainly done,” said Republican strategist John Feehery in describing Trump’s appeal. “He has found a willing and able opponent in the national news media. With his supporters, it might help him. But in building credibility, it definitely hurts him.”
The president is sure to face more credibility tests in the near future, especially given the likelihood that former FBI Director Comey will eventually publicly testify before Congress.
As Senator Schumer told his colleagues this week, “the country is being tested in unprecedented ways. I say to all of my colleagues in the Senate, history is watching.”