WHITE HOUSE —
U.S. President Donald Trump returns to Washington this weekend with a fistful of business contracts to boost his domestic jobs campaign, and commitments from allies for greater cooperation in the fight against terrorism. Maybe just as important, the exhaustive 9-day tour has provided the president a respite from his domestic troubles, giving him an opportunity to shine on the world stage.
But the trip also has raised speculation about the 70-year-old president’s physical stamina; whether he was exhausted when he botched a critical line in his speech to an audience of Muslim leaders, or whether the apparent stumble was a clumsy way of overruling advisers who wanted him to avoid controversial language he used on the campaign trail that opened him to charges of bigotry and Islamophobia.
“It could be jet lag, or it could be intentional,” Julian Zelizer, professor of history and political affairs at Princeton University, told VOA. “It’s easy to say [a person was] tired or worn out, but in some cases they say exactly what they wanted to say to begin with."
During the campaign, Trump repeatedly spoke of confronting “radical Islamic terrorism,” and excoriated Hillary Clinton and President Barack Obama for avoiding the phrase.
But after what was described as a sharp debate among his advisers, the prepared text of his speech used the phrase “Islamist extremism,” which attempts to differentiate between the entire Islamic world and Muslim groups that mix religion with an extreme political ideology known as “Islamism.”
When he delivered the speech, however, the president deviated from the script, adding a few words of his own. “Of course, there is still much work to be done,” Trump said. “That means honestly confronting the crisis of Islamic extremism and the Islamists and Islamic terror of all kinds.”
Afterward, an aide explained the presidential gaffe by saying, “He’s just an exhausted guy.” Trump also later backed out of a scheduled speech about social media, saying he was tired. His daughter Ivanka filled in for him.
Barry Strauch, who studied fatigue as an accident investigator with the National Transportation Safety Board, said while exhaustion cannot be ruled out, it is not a likely factor in Trump’s case.
“The president travels differently than anyone else. He gets to fly on Air Force One, which has pretty good sleeping facilities for a president," Strauch said.
Zelizer, who has researched Trump’s earlier career, said Trump’s strategic stumble would be consistent with his past practice in business.
“If you’ve been following him since the 1980s, this is who he was,” he said. “So there is an element that this is President Trump as we saw him as a young man. It’s the same person.”
Trump has a history of misstatements and getting his facts wrong, prompting critics to accuse him of being untruthful. In some cases, the errors are obvious mistakes.
In a recent interview with Fox Business Channel anchor Maria Bartiromo, he said, “We’ve just launched 59 missiles to Iraq,” prompting a correction from Bartiromo. “Toward Syria,” she said.
In another interview, he spoke about North Korea having had the same leader for more than two decades. While the same family has ruled for three generations in North Korea, current leader Kim Jong Un has only been in power since 2011.
Trump’s ensuing stops in Israel and the Palestinian territories, the Vatican, Brussels and Sicily are all designed to burnish the reputation of a president who is being battered by bad press at home.
Aside from a briefing by U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson aboard Air Force One en route to Brussels, no spokesperson has gone on record, with the exception of a few brief quotes in response to queries.
The relative quiet has given rise to speculation about an imminent shakeup in the White House communications staff and strategy, as the administration seeks an image reset.
One possible result: an end to the daily White House briefings with Sean Spicer, which have become a fixture of afternoon television viewing in the United States.
Trump, a former reality TV star, is known to be unhappy with the way the briefings have turned into a media circus, but has resisted stopping them because they generate high ratings.
White House bureau chief Steve Herman, traveling with the president, contributed to this report.