WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump announced plans Thursday for his first international trip since taking office with Saudi Arabia his first stop.
“The reason we chose to do the Saudis first is that they are the custodians of the two Holy Mosques,” a senior White House official explained. Leaders of the Muslim world will convene to meet with Trump, who warmed to Middle Eastern diplomacy after successful visits from King Abdullah of Jordan and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al Sissi.
After Saudi Arabia, Trump will visit Israel, then Rome, where he will meet Pope Francis. After visiting three regions pivotal to the development of Islam, Judaism and Christianity, Trump will go to Brussels and Sicily for a NATO summit and meeting of the G7 economic powers. The nine-day trip is scheduled for later this month.
Trump’s travel plans popped up during a day dominated by the president’s first legislative victories. After the House passed his American Health Care Act, House Republicans joined Trump and White House staff for a celebratory moment in the Rose Garden. The Senate also passed a $1.1 trillion spending bill by a bipartisan vote. The bill, which keeps the government running through September, now goes to Trump to sign in time to avert a midnight Friday deadline.
Trump’s public events began with a Rose Garden ceremony attended by people of faith who watched the president sign an executive order to protect the rights of those who object to government policies on religious grounds.
“We will not allow people of faith to be targeted, bullied or silenced again and we will never stand for religious discrimination,” Trump said.
In attendance were Little Sisters of the Poor, who objected to the contraception mandate in the Affordable Care Act, and won in the U.S. Supreme Court. “Come on up here, sister,” Trump said to a member of group during his remarks.
Trump also reached out to America’s “Muslim allies to combat extremism, terrorism and violence and to embrace a more just and hopeful future for young Muslims in their countries.”
Trump’s first stop came as a surprise to Ibrahim Hooper, communications director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. Hooper greeted the news with silence, then a question: “Did he say why he’s stopping there first?”
In a background briefing with reporters, a top official admitted that critics often portray Trump as anti-Islam, but the aide said Trump shares many objectives with Muslim majority nations, such as defeating “radical extremism.”
The president is committed to “better lives for children across all major religions,” another senior official explained.
Trump will hit the international stage late for a new president. Presidents Barack Obama, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton all traveled abroad during their first 100 days. Instead, Trump focused on travel within the United States, often to his own properties, such as Mar-a-Lago.
The Trump White House does not see the president’s focus as antithetical to a muscular foreign policy. Aides believe Trump’s use of force after Syrian President Bashar al Assad turned chemical weapons on his own people has resonated with world leaders who saw America’s leadership falter during the Obama years.
“The president has demonstrated already that America First is fully compatible with American leadership in the world,” a senior official said.
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How they voted
The Senate voted 79-18 to pass a $1.1 trillion spending plan Thursday with Nevada’s senators split on the bill.
Republican Sen. Dean Heller — no
Democratic Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto — yes