News and Music Discovery
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Presidential Travel Comes With Significant Logistical Challenges


Any time a president goes overseas, the stakes are high, and a lot can go wrong. President Trump has just left for a trip that has a few extra wrinkles. It's his first time abroad as president. He'll be gone for nine days, and he's visiting places that can be centers of controversy - Saudi Arabia, Israel and the Vatican. Johanna Maska was director of press advance for the Obama White House, and she now runs the consulting firm Global Situation Room. Hi there.

JOHANNA MASKA: Hi. How are you?

SHAPIRO: Good. So before we get to this specific trip, just give us a sense of how difficult and precarious presidential travel abroad is in general.

MASKA: Well, you lose control. You know, the thing about advance, our role was really to control the situation, to control what everyone sees. And so whenever you step outside of this country, you lose control of that narrative.

So to the degree that there are a lot of stakeholders already when you do a trip in the U.S., when you go overseas, it's a whole other degree of people who have something that they want to get out of this trip.

SHAPIRO: When I was White House correspondent, you helped organize a bunch of presidential trips that I covered, and I don't remember many that lasted more than a week. This trip is nine days. How much more challenging is that?

MASKA: Nine days stretches your resources. It stretches your assets, and then it stretches your staff power. So you have, you know, so many people who you know you can trust to execute a flawless trip. And when you're doing nine days, you need teams in each location who have probably been there for about two weeks. And so you're just diminishing, I guess, how much control you can exert over each trip because each one's going to take your attention.

SHAPIRO: On this trip, President Trump is visiting the centers of three major world religions - Islam, Judaism and Catholicism. How does that add to the complexity?

MASKA: I went to each of these three places with President Obama. And these particular locations have cultural sensitivities. They have religious sensitivities, each is unique. And the press corps and the dynamics of each place is unique. You know, putting them all together in one trip is brave.

SHAPIRO: Apparently, there are some creative measures being taken to keep President Trump happy on this trip. The AP reports today that the Saudis will serve him a well-done steak with ketchup alongside the lamb and rice that everyone else eats.

So on a trip like this, how much accommodation is there of this particular president has these particular quirks, preferences, predilections, and we need to accommodate them as opposed to, well, you're the leader of the free world, here's what you're going to do?

MASKA: It depends on the country. So everyone wants to be a good host. Hosting is typically pretty important to people, so they'll ask some of those questions of, you know, what would make them more comfortable? In Italy, at the G8 summit, they started building a basketball court because they had heard President Obama liked basketball.

SHAPIRO: Really? I never heard that.

MASKA: And I was like, no, no, you guys don't need to build a basketball court. We're good.

SHAPIRO: Well, compared to that, serving a well-done steak next to the lamb seems like not a big deal at all.

MASKA: Yeah. I mean, to the degree that they're going to try to be good hosts, I'm not surprised.

SHAPIRO: Ultimately, how is success measured on a trip like this?

MASKA: You have your goals and objectives when you go into a trip, and they may not align with what everyone else is looking at. The press is clearly watching for any slip-up. And it happened with us in the sense of, you know, did he shake someone's hand the right way? Did he bow the right way?

That's not always the indicator of the trip and the success. A leader has clear objectives of what they want to get out of a trip, and so my guess is that they already have some sort of a plan in what they want.

SHAPIRO: Johanna Maska, it's been great talking to you. Thank you.

MASKA: Thank you so much, Ari. It's always a pleasure to talk with you.

SHAPIRO: Johanna Maska was director of press advance for the Obama White House, and she now runs the consulting firm Global Situation Room.

(SOUNDBITE OF CRO SONG, "MEINE ZEIT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.