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With Saudi Arabia, Trump Starts First Foreign Tour as Scandals Mount at Home
Riyadh : U.S. President Donald Trump, left, and first lady Melania Trump, right, are welcomed by Saudi King Salman, center, during a welcome ceremony at the Royal Terminal of King Khalid International Airport, in Riyadh. (Photo credit: AP)
Riyadh: US President Donald Trump landed in Saudi Arabia Saturday for the start of an eight-day foreign tour, taking his first steps on the world stage as scandals mount at home.
Air Force One had barely taken off when it was announced that James Comey, the former FBI chief fired by Trump, had agreed to testify publicly about Russian interference in the US elections.
Reports also emerged that Trump had called Comey "a nut job" and that the FBI had identified a senior White House official as a "significant person of interest" in its probe of Russian meddling.
Trump and his wife Melania, who dressed conservatively in black but did not cover her hair, walked side-by-side to the tarmac where they both shook hands with Saudi King Salman.
— BBC News (World) (@BBCWorld) May 20, 2017
Trump is to hold talks with King Salman and the kingdom's two powerful crown princes later on Saturday, before giving a speech on Islam to leaders of Muslim countries on Sunday.
For Riyadh the visit is an opportunity to rebuild ties with a key ally, which were strained under Trump's predecessor Barack Obama who Sunni Arab Gulf states suspected of a tilt towards their Shiite regional rival Iran.
That, together with a more muted focus on human rights and the likely announcement of new arms deals, should please Washington's traditional Sunni Gulf allies.
Sunday's speech to dozens of Muslim leaders has been touted as a major event -- along the lines of a landmark address to the Islamic world given by Obama in Cairo in 2009.
The speech will be especially sensitive given tensions sparked by the Trump administration's attempted travel ban targeting several Muslim majority nations and accusations of anti-Islamic rhetoric on the campaign trail.
Trump wants Gulf states in particular to do more to tackle extremists such as the Islamic State jihadist group.
Before departing, the president tweeted he would be "strongly protecting American interests" on his marathon eight-day trip to the Middle East and Europe.
After Saudi Arabia, Trump will head to Israel and the Palestinian Territories where he hopes to revive the moribund peace process.
He then travels to Europe where he will hold face-to-face meetings including with Pope Francis and France's new leader, Emmanuel Macron.
It is a trip fraught with peril for the real estate magnate, who is known to dislike lengthy travel.
The avalanche of revelations in the run-up to his departure have eroded Trump's standing at home -- where the parallels with Richard Nixon's ill-fated presidency are now being openly drawn.
ALSO READ | On his First Foreign Trip, Trump Will Tell Muslims to 'Drive Out Terrorists'
On Friday, a report by The Washington Post that the probe into his campaign's Russia ties had identified a "significant person of interest" in the White House undercut Trump's insistence his election bid had nothing to do with the Kremlin.
The White House was rocked by another bombshell when reports emerged that Trump said his firing of "nut job" Comey had relieved "great pressure" on him due to the investigation.
The scandals have revived questions about his ability to strike a presidential tone with his foreign counterparts, with Trump declaring himself the victim of the "greatest witch hunt" in American political history.
- Arms contracts -
His visit to the Gulf is expected to bring lucrative arms contracts for US firms.
In Israel, Trump will meet his "friend" Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem and Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas in Bethlehem.
The Israeli leg of his trip is already awash in controversy -- from a row over Trump's visit to Jerusalem's Western Wall, the holiest prayer site for Jews, to his alleged disclosure of Israeli intelligence to Russian officials.
Trump's meeting with Pope Francis -- two men at odds on everything from climate change to refugee policy -- remains highly unpredictable, although the pontiff says he will give America's bullish leader an open-minded hearing.
The president will also meet members of NATO in Brussels and attend a G7 summit in the picturesque Sicilian town of Taormina overlooking the Mediterranean.
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