Donald Trump’s first foreign trip as US president will include Israel, the Vatican and Saudi Arabia, a senior administration official said on Thursday.
It was known that Trump would also attend a Nato meeting in Brussels on 25 May and the Group of Seven summit in Sicily on 26 May.
But speaking in the Rose Garden of the White House on Thursday, Trump confirmed that he will use his first trip abroad since taking office to encompass a sweep of some of the most pressing foreign policy issues of the moment.
First, in Saudi Arabia he will meet “leaders from across the Muslim world”, he said, as he tried to shape what he called a new foundation of co-operation “with our Muslim allies to combat extremism, terrorism and violence”.
He claimed that the US would not presume to tell people how to live their lives, but would try to help create a more just and hopeful future for young Muslims in their countries.
The announcement of a stop in Israel comes after Trump’s meeting on Wednesday with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, and his vows to mediate peace with Israel.
Trump also met with Catholic cardinals earlier Thursday ahead of confirming his trip to Rome and the Vatican, where he will meet Pope Francis.
The swing through Europe will see him attend the Brussels summit of Nato leaders, where Russia’s annexation of Crimea, continued presence in Ukraine and pressure on eastern Europe will dominate, before moving on the the G7 summit in Sicily, which will precede the G20 summit in Germany in July, where Trump will have his first face to face meeting with Russian president Vladimir Putin.
A senior White House official, who did not wish to be named, explained the new itinerary: “This whole conversation started with the Saudis shortly after the election. They approached us wanting to start a new relationship with America. They think there’s a lot of opportunities because people are excited to deal with the president.”
The administration official added that Trump has laid out objectives for the region: a long-term fix for radicalisation and how to fight the ideological battle; stopping funding for organisations that perpetrate terrorism and radicalise young people; getting partners in the region to share more of the burden; and countering Iran and the Islamic State.
Saudi Arabia was chosen because its status as the custodian of the two holy mosques – in Mecca and Medina - makes it fitting to convene leaders from the Islamic world, the official said. “Over the last 10 years I would not say we’ve made our relations as a country with the Islamic world better. On the contrary, the amazing enthusiasm I see from all the conversations with leaders of the Islamic world about the potential to work with President Trump: they all use words like ‘historic opportunity’, ‘reset’, ‘we felt abandoned’.
“I do think there’s a big opportunity. What I do see from the leadership now is a real desire to try. I think we share a lot of the same objectives and we’ll see if we can work together to achieve them.”
Amid reports that the state department is being increasingly marginalised, the official insisted that the secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, has been involved “every step of the way”. Asked if there could be additional meetings with world leaders, the official said: “What I will say, especially with this president, everything is always possible at any time and everything’s always subject to change.”
Another administration official said Trump will demonstrate that “’America first’ is fully compatible with American leadership in the world”. Contrary to popular wisdom, the official said, “the president has actually done a tremendous amount of work to strengthen alliances”, citing the example of Nato where he has encouraged more members to pull their weight.
“I think that what this trip will also do is it will reverse what had been a trend of America’s disengagement from the world and some of its biggest problems. America’s disengagement from some of these problems has aided and abetted those who are really fanning violence and perpetuating human suffering across the Middle East in particular.”
Agencies also contributed to this report