From Riyadh to Jerusalem to Taormina - when the US president travels across the globe, White House correspondents follow along. DW's Alexandra von Nahmen joined Donald Trump on his first foreign trip as president.
A correspondent who travels with the US president should adhere to one hard and fast trule: get sleep and food whenever it's possible. "You don't know when the next opportunity will come," I was advised at the beginning of the trip by a colleague who started traveling with US president during Barack Obama's administration. I decide to stick to that advice - we all quickly realize, however, that Donald Trump, who is on his first trip abroad as commander in chief, intends to take his performance up a notch.
Riyadh, Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Rome, Brussels and, finally, Taormina - for Trump, this is a journey that allows him to escape from the problems at home. We are witnessing a president who appears to be on the run, who has embarked on an ambitious travel schedule despite the fact that he is not particularly fond of traveling. And who appears to be craving accolades, encouragement and pretty pictures. His - mostly clueless - spokespeople and us, the harried correspondents, are right in the middle of it.
Saudi Arabian splendor
Arriving in Riyadh in the middle of the night after a 16-hour-flight, there was only a little sleep to be had. Those who wish to be present at King Salman's official reception of the president have to be ready to go by 6 a.m. What follows is a long wait at the airport and then a truly pompous reception ceremony - the kind of welcome Trump appreciates. We, however, would also appreciate a briefing on this journey's aims and purposes.
Instead, a short time ahead of his keynote speech in Riyadh we receive a number of excerpts via email. It's a powerful speech that outlines the principles of the US foreign policy under President Trump based on his "America first" slogan, and which - following his statements about Muslims during the presidential campaign - adopts a more conciliatory tone. The president, however, occasionally deviates from the speech as written - by accident, we are later told.
He repeatedly mentions "Islamic" - as opposed to "Islamist" - terrorism. When this small, but very meaningful, difference becomes the subject of our reporting - at DW, at the Washington Post and other media outlets - I anticipate that this will have consequences. Ahead of Trump's next speech, this time in Jerusalem, no excerpts are made available to the press.
A lonely lectern
Time and again we fire questions at the president's spokespeople, time and again we ask for more information. Yet the lectern which is erected - along with the American flag - at most stops during the journey, usually remains deserted. One can't help but almost feel sorry for Trump's press staff, who from time to time seem to be running from their jobs.
Naturally, there is the odd press conference, for example, one with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. A briefing with Trump spokesman Sean Spicer is set up, then an informal background conversation with Trump's foreign and security policy advisers. But mostly there is very little - if any - time for questions. Not all of the statements made turn out to be correct. And not once does the president appear to address our questions.
A capricious president
He is unpredictable, according to some of my US colleagues, many of them White House veterans. A short time before his visit to Brussels, The New York Times - citing a high-ranking adviser - reported that Trump would make a very clear commitment to NATO's mutual defense pledge during the celebratory ceremony in the new NATO headquarters. This, however, doesn't happen. Instead, Trump ventures that the alliance costs American taxpayers a lot of money.
His NATO partners are rolling their eyes. The author of The Times article, who's sitting next to me, turns pale. Is this a conscious deceit or a shift of opinion? "At least you pointed out in your article that the president quite often changes his opinions, as well as his prepared speeches, at short notice," I tell him. "Thank God I included that bit," he replies, showing signs of relief.
A desire for answers
Shortly afterward, we are again on our way to the airport. There are no passport or security checks - the bus drives from NATO headquarters right to the airplanes. While one section of the press travels with the president on board Air Force One, the others fly separately on a chartered plane. There are alternating teams that cover the president's various appointments.They provide the others with information, quotations and their impressions. However, everyone wants to attend as many events as possible.
But it's the same criticism that continues to grow for the whole trip. We need more access to the president, members of the White House Correspondents' Association echo our complaints. Yet, hardly anyone here would forgo the opportunity to travel with the president. This trip enables journalists to get unique insights into the core of the Trump administration, its aspirations, its deficiencies and its obvious inability to put up with criticism.
There are those moments when you collapse into your economy-class seat on board the press plane, exhausted, and a friendly voice next to you unexpectedly says, "You seem to be in need of a dose of extra energy." It's a flight attendant offering a tray full of sweets. And one of the colleagues seated in the row in front of me mutters, "There's got to be a press conference at the end of this trip."