Less than a month into his presidency, Donald Trump is forcing foreign leaders to grapple with an extraordinary question: Is it worth the political risk to invite him for a visit?
In Britain, Prime Minister Theresa May is already dealing with a popular backlash over her country's invitation for a state visit to the combustible new U.S. president. Irish leaders, meanwhile, are debating whether to invite Trump — and whether their prime minister should follow tradition and visit the White House on St. Patrick’s Day.
Elsewhere in the world, staffers involved in arranging summits and bilateral meetings face the possibility of public relations and security headaches wherever the U.S. president sets foot, not least because he’s likely to draw protests.
“It’s really risky territory for these foreign leaders who are trying to host Trump,” said Thomas Wright, director of the Project on International Order and Strategy at the Brookings Institution. “He’s a guy who takes everything personally. He’s looking at a huge protest wherever he goes. He may blame the leaders, and he may just blame the country.”
The White House did not immediately respond to requests for comment about how it was crafting its Trump travel strategy. But a Trump administration official said it’s hard for other government heads to resist the possibility of spending time with the leader of the world’s most powerful country. “For better or for worse, people understand that he’s the president, and they want to meet him,” he said.
Already, wherever Trump travels inside the United States, he draws demonstrators, many of whom were spurred to hit the streets after his executive order barring refugees and visitors from seven Muslim-majority countries. The White House canceled a Trump trip to Milwaukee recently because the president’s host, the Harley-Davidson motorcycle company, was said to be worried about protests.
Trump’s foreign travel plans are slowly taking shape, with Europe as a primary focus. In phone calls with international leaders, Trump has committed to attending the G-7 summit in May in Taormina, Italy; a NATO summit that same month in Brussels; and July’s G-20 summit in Hamburg. Trump’s appearance at the NATO meeting is especially sensitive given that he’s called the military alliance “obsolete” and questioned its funding structure.
Two major Asian summits — APEC, hosted by Vietnam, and ASEAN, hosted by the Philippines — are set for the fall, with Trump likely to attend at least one of them. Like other such gatherings, they can be grueling affairs, requiring attendees to attend hours-long meetings, something Trump, who has a famously short attention span, may struggle with.
Several modern U.S. presidents have made Canada, a neighbor and top trade partner, their first stop abroad, sometimes in the bitter cold of February. It’s unclear if Trump will follow that tradition, although Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has invited him. White House spokesman Sean Spicer has said Trump and Trudeau will meet “soon.” But at this rate, Trump appears likely to make his first overseas presidential debut later than his two recent predecessors, Barack Obama and George W. Bush, who both were traveling abroad within a month of their first inaugurations.
Perhaps nowhere has the Trump visit dilemma been clearer than in Britain.
U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May is determined to forge strong ties with the Trump as her country negotiates its exit from the European Union. But nearly 2 million people have signed a petition demanding that the British government not honor Trump with a state visit because “it would cause embarrassment to her majesty, the Queen.” On Monday, the debate hit a new level when the speaker of the British House of Commons, John Bercow, said Trump should not be allowed to address Parliament during his trip.
“I feel very strongly that our opposition to racism and to sexism and our support for equality before the law and an independent judiciary are hugely important considerations," Bercow said, to applause, when explaining his stance.
Wright said that Bercow may have done the British prime minister, a member of the Conservative Party, a favor by undercutting the notion of a Trump appearance before Parliament.
“Imagine if he spoke at the House Commons and the entire Labour Party turned their backs on him — the chances of something going seriously wrong are very, very high,” Wright said.
And Trump, who takes great pride in his brand, revels in adulation, and is highly sensitive to criticism, may not react well, Wright added. If he feels disrespected, say, in Britain or at the NATO summit, Trump may try to take it out on his hosts through policy decisions or, at the least, via Twitter-bashing. Even the latter poses a domestic political risk for foreign leaders who probably don’t wish to be embarrassed by the U.S. president.
“The fact that he views it so personally makes it incredibly high risk,” Wright said.
Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny has accepted Trump’s invitation to stop by the White House on St. Patrick’s Day, following a custom of past prime ministers. Tens of thousands of people have signed a petition, titled “Shamrock for Trump: Not in My Name” pressuring Kenny to scrap the trip. Kenny isn’t backing down, however, and has pledged to tell Trump that he disagrees with the U.S. president’s immigration policy.
Meanwhile, some Irish politicians are questioning whether Kenny should invite Trump to visit their country in return. Ireland’s finance minister, Michael Noonan, said Kenny should wait for a while before asking Trump to stop by.
“I think he should invite him at some stage, but I think an early visit might be controversial,” Noonan told the Limerick Leader. “In all these things, the only reason he would invite him would be for the economic benefit of the country, and if it was too controversial it probably wouldn't be of economic benefit. So it's a matter of timing, but he certainly shouldn't rule it out.”
Some foreign officials downplayed the risks involved with a Trump visit.
In Poland, where the government is relatively conservative, leaders have indicated they are enthusiastic about Trump, except for one area of concern: his apparent fondness for Russia. There’s even an online petition urging Trump to make Poland his first stop in Europe; more than 116,000 people have signed on.
Poland has already invited Trump for a multi-lateral meeting in July, said Piotr Wilczek, the country’s ambassador to the United States. “In Poland, I think the attitude is quite different than in some countries, like France or Germany,” Wilczek said. “I don’t think it’s a risk. I would love for him to visit.”