WASHINGTON — President Trump embarked on Friday on his first foreign mission since taking office, beginning a challenging nine-day, multistop, multifaceted journey to the Middle East and Europe and leaving behind a capital consumed by investigations and intrigue.
Air Force One took off from Joint Base Andrews outside Washington en route to Mr. Trump’s first stop in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, where he will meet with dozens of Arab and Muslim leaders. He will later travel to Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Vatican City, Brussels and finally Sicily before returning May 27.
An inaugural foreign trip would have been daunting for a diplomatic novice under any circumstances, given the panoply of complicated issues that will confront Mr. Trump, including terrorism, religion, economics, Middle East peace, the war in Afghanistan, the future of NATO and Russian aggression. But it will be only more so given the distractions back home as a newly appointed special counsel begins looking into any ties between Russia and Mr. Trump’s campaign.
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In his final hours before leaving, Mr. Trump was focused on picking a new F.B.I. director to replace James B. Comey, whom he fired last week. While he had hoped to make a decision before the trip, the president came to the conclusion that he was not ready. Instead, that will be one more question looming over him as he jets across parts of the world.
Mr. Trump has expressed dread over the rigors of so much travel, but professed enthusiasm as he prepared to depart. “Getting ready for my big foreign trip,” he wrote on Twitter before leaving the White House. “Will be strongly protecting American interests — that’s what I like to do!”
Traveling with him were his wife, Melania Trump, and his daughter Ivanka Trump and son-in-law Jared Kushner, as well aides including Reince Priebus, the White House chief of staff, and Gary Cohn, the national economics adviser.
The White House cast the trip as a reassertion of American leadership in the world after what it portrayed as a fallow period under President Barack Obama.
“There is a great sense of expectation and I think a great welcomeness of America returning to the scene,” Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson said on Thursday. Many foreign leaders, he added, want to see an end to what they consider a dismissal of their concerns. “They’re ready for re-engagement with America.”
Mr. Tillerson and other advisers dismissed questions about developments at home that will almost certainly dog Mr. Trump while he is abroad. “The people in the rest of the world do not have the time to pay attention to what’s happening domestically here,” he said. “They are more concerned about what they see happening in the relationship with their country and what we are bringing to address these very serious challenges that are affecting all of us.”
But even if people in the rest of the world are not paying attention, presidents in such situations generally do, testing their ability to walk an international tightrope even as they try to stage-manage events thousands of miles away.
“The president must be able to compartmentalize to survive the rigors of the job,” said Mara Rudman, a top national security aide to Mr. Obama and President Bill Clinton. “It will never be more tested than when he faces significant domestic crises while dealing with momentous diplomatic issues, which often surface on foreign travel.”
The timing of Mr. Trump’s trip echoed other times presidents traveled beyond the borders while trying to fend off investigations at home. President Richard M. Nixon traveled to the Middle East in June 1974 in the throes of Watergate, drinking in the adulation of hundreds of thousands of people who turned out to cheer him in Egypt and focusing attention on his peacemaking efforts in Israel, Syria and elsewhere.
“The chief function of a foreign trip for a scandal-ridden chief executive is to make him feel better,” said Evan Thomas, a Nixon biographer.
Still, the affirmation was ephemeral. When Nixon next headed to Moscow in a last-ditch effort to negotiate an arms control deal with the Russians, he was hamstrung by the need to keep conservatives on board at home to fend off impeachment. Sitting in a limousine outside the Kremlin, Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger thought Nixon was “preoccupied and withdrawn.” Within weeks, he resigned.
Mr. Clinton found himself overseas at several critical moments during the investigation into his efforts to cover up his affair with Monica S. Lewinsky in legal proceedings. Shortly after testifying to a grand jury and going on television to acknowledge that he had misled the country about the relationship, Mr. Clinton in September 1998 headed to Russia, which was in the middle of an economic meltdown, and Northern Ireland, which had just suffered a major terrorist attack.
To those on the trip, it felt unreal as Mr. Clinton tried to concentrate on the ruble collapse and Irish peace while fretting about whether Democratic senators, led by Joseph I. Lieberman, would call for his resignation. (Ultimately, Mr. Lieberman called for censure, not resignation; as it happens, Mr. Trump interviewed Mr. Lieberman this week as a candidate for F.B.I. director.)
Mr. Clinton headed back overseas in December 1998 just as the House battle over impeachment was reaching its climax. Once again, it was the Middle East and Mr. Clinton struggled to keep his mind in the moment. During a stop in Gaza, Dennis Ross, a Middle East adviser, noticed the president scribbling on his yellow legal pad, “Focus on your job. Focus on your job.”
While at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem the next morning preparing for a meeting with the Israeli prime minister — then, as now, Benjamin Netanyahu — an aide walked in to let Mr. Clinton know that a key House Republican had decided to vote against him, giving opponents enough votes to impeach him.
“It was just this surreal amazing event,” remembered Joe Lockhart, who was on the trip as Mr. Clinton’s deputy press secretary at the time. But he added that Mr. Clinton had the capacity to force himself to put aside his troubles at least temporarily. “He could be disappointed, he could be outraged for a few minutes, and then he could click it off and go into Middle East peace negotiations.”
Whether Mr. Trump can do the same will be a test for a president not known for his message discipline. Again and again during his first four months in office, Mr. Trump has shown a willingness to undercut any political momentum he has built with intemperate public remarks that bring the conversation back to the crises he faces.
Just after winning House approval for legislation overturning Mr. Obama’s health care program, Mr. Trump fired Mr. Comey, then kept the story alive by contradicting the official version of the decision and then again by seeming to threaten the former F.B.I. director with possible secret tapes.
Aides hope the president will stick to the issues overseas during the trip, but they are realistic given his history.
In Riyadh, Mr. Trump will meet first with King Salman and other Saudi royals, then with leaders from other Gulf states and finally with leaders from a variety of Muslim countries. In Jerusalem, he will meet with Mr. Netanyahu and visit the Western Wall before making the short trek to Bethlehem in the West Bank to meet with President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority.
From there, he will fly to Italy to meet with Pope Francis at the Vatican and then to Brussels for a meeting of NATO leaders and lunch with Emmanuel Macron, the newly elected president of France. Finally, he will head to Sicily for the annual summit meeting of the Group of 7 big powers.
But the president’s team knows he will have at least one eye on Washington. “The idea that when the president is overseas everybody puts their guns down and waits till he gets back home is long gone,” Mr. Lockhart said.
“That tradition probably died during our time, Clinton’s time, and was perpetrated by the Republicans,” he added. “They decided that they weren’t going to let up on him. And that tradition continued. Democrats didn’t care when Bush was overseas. You don’t even have the political cease-fire that had been traditionally observed.”