Give the White House and State Department credit for turning a fumble into a potential touchdown. For weeks, people wondered why they hadn’t done the basic block-and-tackle work of setting a meeting between Donald Trump and Pope Francis, even after getting friendly signals from the Vatican. Today, the White House announced that the visit would take place as part of a tolerance mission that will take Trump on a tour of countries that represent the world’s three major monotheistic religions for his maiden presidential voyage:
President Donald Trump plans to visit Saudi Arabia, Israel and the Vatican later this month as part of his first trip outside the U.S. since taking office.
Mr. Trump plans to make the three stops, in places that are home to some of the world’s most notable religious sites, before attending summits with other world leaders in Brussels and Sicily.
“Tolerance is the cornerstone of peace. That is why I am proud to make a major and historic announcement this morning and share with you that my first foreign trip as President will be to Saudi Arabia, then Israel, then the Vatican in Rome,” Mr. Trump said in remarks at the White House on Thursday.
The trip will take place in conjunction with Trump’s already-planned attendance at the G-7 conference in Sicily. That had been on the schedule for months, leading to increasing speculation as to why the White House hadn’t made arrangements for a Vatican visit, an opportunity no president has missed since Harry Truman. Two weeks ago, Sean Spicer abruptly announced that Trump would request a meeting, but as of late last week, nothing had changed. Given that these meetings normally generate no negative public statements, they’re basically an easy way to connect to the 70 million or so Catholics in the US.
With that as background, the end result is pretty impressive. It makes even more sense as a follow-on to Pope Francis’ trip to Egypt, a point that veteran Vatican reporter Francis Rocca made on Twitter this morning:
— Francis X. Rocca (@FrancisXRocca) May 4, 2017
It’s a monotheism hat trick, and a way to tie the concerns of three very different sovereignties together within the umbrella of American policy. That could allow Trump to focus his meeting with the pontiff on inter-religious dialogue rather than on domestic policy where the two differ profoundly, although it won’t keep it off the table entirely. (Rocca also notes that today’s religious liberty EO will offer another opportunity for friendly engagement.)
The other two legs are even more meaningful in terms of policy, especially after Trump’s promise this week to Mahmoud Abbas to solve the Israeli-Palestinian crisis. Saudi Arabia will get the honor of the first visit, and Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu has the opportunity to showcase his close friendship with the new American president to voters at home. Trump can leverage both into pushing for enough concessions to get talks restarted, while also giving Netanyahu assurances that his administration will have Israel’s back more than the previous one.
Even if nothing firm results from the trip, it’s still a smart decision to launch Trump’s foreign-policy vision as involving faith, engagement, and tolerance. It may have come together late, but it’s a sign of real thought and purpose.