Poor Donald Trump, sent to foreign lands to discuss hugely complex topics he probably knows nothing about

The President’s trip may have been fairly uneventful thus far, but his inner Joey from ‘Friends’ will come out soon enough, given the vast opportunity for the gaffes he’s so prone to

Matthew Norman
Sunday 21 May 2017 17:23 BST
Donald Trump joins sword dance in Saudi Arabia

When you’re alone and life is making you lonely, as Petula Clark might have sung back in 1964, you can always go (ba-ba-ba-bum) on a whistle-stop five country jaunt to abroad.

The odds may be stacked against Donald Trump forgetting all his troubles, all his cares, on his first foreign tour, as Pet promised in “Downtown”. But hey, there’s nothing like some geographical distance to put local difficulties in perspective – and who in his domestic position wouldn’t dream of sparkling on the international stage?

Whether he is capable of sparkling in Saudi Arabia, Israel, the Vatican, Belgium or Italy is in doubt. But at the time of writing, he hasn’t monumentally shamed himself on the first leg in Saudi Arabia. The one trivial embarrassment so far saw Trump, who attacked Barack Obama for bowing to the previous king, treating the incumbent to a stiff-kneed, little-girl curtsey.

Yet these are the earliest of doors. By the time you read this, he may have congratulated King Salman on the sensible Saudi approach to road safety (“Women drivers, huh, who needs ’em?”), and female complainants about sexual assault (“Highness, you have the greatest public floggings”).

He may, in today’s speech to the leaders of 50 Muslim nations, stray from the teleprompter with a rant about the “deep state” and an invitation to his audience to join him in a chorus of “Lock Her Up”.

Tomorrow, when he nips to Israel and lavishes that amazingly generous 15 minutes on the Holocaust museum, Yad Vashem, he might blurt something like “so sad, so very sad… although Bannon tells me it never happened. Fake news… ” as he lays the wreath.

At the Vatican on Wednesday, he is capable of asking Pope Francis what he does for relief when he gets a bit full up beneath the red robe (“This celibacy thing, Frankie, it’s baloney, right?”). On the final leg, at Friday’s G7 meeting in Sicily, you wouldn’t rule out a reference to Vito Corleone’s birthplace, and some wistful reflecting on that other Don’s methods of dealing with those who showed him insufficient respect.

Yet the best guide to how Trump will handle his top-level summits is a later model of Italian-American than the Godfather. It’s Joey Tribbiani from Friends, specifically in the episode where a door-to-door salesman (played by magician Penn Jillette) tries to flog him a set of encyclopaedias.

“Let me ask you one question,” says Penn. “Do your friends ever have a conversation and you just nod along even though you’re not really sure what they’re talking about?” Joey’s mind, such as it is, flashes back to the Central Perk sofa.

“I think he deserves a Nobel Prize,” says Monica, and Joey nods until the others ridicule her, and he looks utterly bemused. “I mean, it was like the Algonquin kid’s table,” says Chandler, and Joey uneasily joins in the laughter as the reference whooshes over his head.

As for his nodding incomprehension at Ross’s “I’m telling you, it’s just totally unconstitutional,” – need we really belabour the parallel confusion in the Oval Office about its meaning?

It isn’t easy to feel sympathy for Donald Trump. It requires a colossal effort of will, if not mind-altering drugs, to come close. Even so, I ask big-hearted readers to make that gargantuan act of will, and imagine his torment as he meets world leaders to discuss matters of Byzantine complexity about which he knows about as much as Joey. If that.

His ability to master a brief mirrors Joey’s to learn French. Such is his ego-to-concentration span balance, we read, that aides pepper two-page documents with the words “Donald” and “Trump” to keep him engaged.

So if his hosts stroke that ego by remembering to congratulate him on the “largest electoral college win ever”, he’ll do a Joey whatever they say. If Benjamin Netanyahu asks him to drop a pair of MOABs on Ramallah to mark the first day of Ramadan, he will nod his agreement, and leave it to Sean Spicer to brief the press that he was joking from behind whatever the Wailing Wall has to offer by way of bushes. If Bibi brings up the ongoing strife between Sunni and Shia, he’ll nod and say that he and Ivanka love doing “I Got You Babe” together at Mar-a-Lago karaoke nights.

On some level, to some degree, the sense of inadequacy will penetrate the bombast as he tries to bluff through these meetings. It will be a painful experience, however briefly remembered, because no one enjoys feeling spectacularly out of their depth, and his foreign policy knowledge makes the 2008 Sarah Palin look like Henry Kissinger.

All he has in his favour is that expectations could not be lower. As with Palin in her 2008 VP debate with Joe Biden, all he needs do for the trip to be considered a huge diplomatic success is avoid wetting himself at the G7 and vomiting over His Holiness.

And then on Saturday, he and almost every member of his inner circle, who have travelled with him to avoid being ousted in absentia, must return to the US to face the balalaika music as the Russia investigation hots up. And here lies the tragedy of escapist foreign travel: however difficult and disappointing it proves, the reality lying in wait back home when it ends is worse.

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