President Trump, fresh off a well-reviewed speech in Saudi Arabia, was being covered in Jerusalem yesterday when breaking news banners flashed across cable news screens:
Michael Flynn, his ousted national security adviser, was declining a Senate subpoena and would invoke the Fifth Amendment.
So much for ditching the Russia story back home.
And there was other news infringing on Trump’s first foreign trip. The Washington Post’s lead story yesterday was on the Trump budget including “massive cuts” to Medicaid.
To be sure, the press gave Trump his due for what the New York Times called his “measured tone…sober and careful,” in Riyadh. He struck a softer tone on Islam, which the media like. He didn’t distract from the day’s message with tweets or news conferences. The warm Saudi welcome certainly got his trip off to a successful start.
The Post’s Phil Rucker reports from Riyadh that “this was just the getaway the weary president and his wearier staff ordered up.
For 48 hours in Saudi Arabia…the president and his team were able to hide from the scandal that is escalating back home in Washington and threatening to engulf the new administration.”
Well, maybe. But that wasn’t the case back home. The Flynn news seemed to underscore the media’s determination to keep the Russia investigation high on the radar.
When U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, referring to the Robert Mueller probe, says on “Today” that “we absolutely need the investigation,” well, that’s news.
And in Jerusalem, Trump referred to that Washington Post report that he had given two Russian diplomats highly classified info about an ISIS plot—intelligence that the New York Times later reported came from Israel. “So you had another story wrong,” the president told the press with Bibi Netanyahu at his side. “Never mentioned the word ‘Israel.’” But the Times hadn’t said Trump told the Russians that Israeli intelligence was the source.
The president deserves to be graded on how he does with Saudi, Israeli and Palestinian leaders and, later, Pope Francis. He is a businessman making his first foray on the international stage.
But the idea that the trip would blot out other issues was always a fantasy. When Bill Clinton was embroiled in scandal, reporters would ask about the details as he held pressers with a procession of foreign leaders. The result, then as now, is a split-screen presidency.
The last time Trump basked in such praise for a speech—his address to a joint session of Congress—he stepped on the story line days later with that tweet alleging that Barack Obama wiretapped him.
On this trip, the president has been very disciplined about sticking to the script. That approach could pay dividends long after he’s back in Washington.