Air Force One, carrying US President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump, touched down in Saudi Arabia Saturday. The Trumps embarked Friday toward the Middle East and Europe, in what is Trump's first presidential trip abroad. Following his takeoff, however, several reports were published on the alleged contacts that may have gone on between Trump and senior Russian officials during the presidential elections.
On Saturday, former US administration officials from the administration of former US president Barack Obama were reported as saying that senior Russian officials had bragged about the close ties they have nurtured with former national security adviser Michael Flynn, in an effort to influence Trump and his team.
The sources noted that the Russians were concerned about the American intelligence agencies, and some of them went to great lengths to assess the amount of sensitive information that reached Flynn's hands. US intelligence sources have speculated that Flynn could create a problem for US national security. Flynn's lawyer refused to comment on the report.
An official in the White House denied the report and stated that they are certain that once the examination is over, there will be no evidence of support or connection between the election headquarters and the Russians.
Earlier in the week, the Senate Intelligence Committee announced on Monday that it has requested that deposed FBI Director James Comey testify during a public hearing as part of an investigation into Trump's ties with Russia.
The New York Times reported Friday that during a meeting Trump held with Russian officials, which including the Russian foreign minister and the Russian ambassador to Washington, Trump told the Russian officials at the White House that firing FBI Director James Comey relieved "great pressure" the president was facing from an ongoing probe into Russia and the US presidential election. The alleged meeting took place on May 10 at the White House.
"I just fired the head of the FBI. He was crazy, a real nut job," Trump said, according to the Times. "I faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off."
The Times said the document was based on notes taken from inside the Oval Office, and was read to it by a US official.
During the meeting, which took place the day after Comey's dismissal, Trump added that he is not under investigation. The New York Times reported that the quotes from the meeting reinforce Trump's claim that Comey was ousted first and foremost because of an FBI investigation into the connections that Trump's campaigners might have had with Russian officials.
Meanwhile, CNN reported that the White House lawyers had begun to study the procedures required to oust the president. Officials in Washington noted that the lawyers consulted with experts on the subject, although the possibility of Trump's removal still seems far away. The White House refused to comment on the report.
Members of the White House are reportedly putting their faith in the support of Republican members of Congress, and even Democrats are trying to calm the talks over the possibility of ousting the incumbent president, for fear that it would seem rash.
White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer was asked to comment on the remarks made at the meeting and did not deny them. In a response to The New York Times, he wrote that Comey did put undue pressure on the president and interfered with his attempts to communicate with Russia on issues such as Syria, Ukraine and the ISIS. " By grandstanding and politicizing the investigation into Russia’s actions, James Comey created unnecessary pressure on our ability to engage and negotiate with Russia," stated Spicer. "Once again, the real story is that our national security has been undermined by the leaking of private and highly classified conversations."
Another source in the administration defended Trump Friday night, saying that Trump was merely using a negotiation tactic by telling Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov that he was under pressure, to create a sense of commitment among Russian officials and try to extract concessions from them. The source further said that he wanted to make them understand that Russia's intervention in the elections last year caused him a great deal of political problems, in an effort to soften them.
In addition to the New York Times, the Washington Post reported that a man currently serving in the White House as one of Trump's senior advisors is an important part of the investigation into the relations between Trump and Russia.
'That's what I like to do!'
Trump's first stop on his trip will be Saudi Arabia. From there he will continue to Israel, before visiting Italy and Belgium.
A few hours before leaving, Trump tweeted: "Getting ready for my big foreign trip. Will be strongly protecting American interests - that's what I like to do!" Saudi Arabia is the US's most important ally in the Persian Gulf, and it is a big partner in the struggle against Iran. Last night, while Trump was on his way from Washington to Saudi Arabia, Houthi rebels in Yemen fired a missile at the Saudi capital of Riyadh, but it was intercepted by the Saudi army. The Houthis fighting in Yemen's civil war are supported by Iran and fighting against Saudi Arabia and its allies.
A central goal of Trump's visit to the region is to reassure US allies, which have expressed concern over Trump's "America First" slogan. The catchphrase expresses the position that the US will focus on its own issues and reduce its involvement in overseas affairs.
A speech to the Muslim world
In Saudi Arabia, Trump will deliver a speech intended for the ears of the Islamic world. His speech is expected to express a clear contrast between the vision Obama presented during his first visit to the region in 2009 and Trump's vision. In Israel, Trump will meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and in Rome he will meet with Pope Francis. The Pope criticized Trump during the US presidential elections, and Trump in response questioned the Pope's faith.
In Brussels, Trump will participate in the NATO conference, which in the past he had vehemently criticized. Recently, though, he has stressed that despite his criticism, he is committed to NATO. In Sicily, Trump will meet with the rest of the G7 leaders at the largest economies conference in the West.
Trump left the United States without appointing a new FBI director, after firing FBI Comey week on the grounds that he "did not do a good job." Comey's dismissal caused a maelstrom of criticism, as Comey was heading an investigation on Russian interference in the elections and the contacts Moscow may have had with the Trump campaign before he was elected president.
Earlier this week, it was reported that before he dismissed him, Trump tried to persuade Comey to stop the investigation of Trump's then-national security adviser, Michael Flynn. Trump was later forced to oust Flynn after it was revealed that he did not disclose of secret meetings he had had with Russia. This week, Trump denied the claim that he had tried to persuade Comey to close the investigation into Flynn, claiming via Twitter that he is facing "the single greatest witch hunt of a politician in American history!"