Roslan Rahman | AFP | Getty Images
Frank Lavin, then U.S. ambassador to Singapore, toasts with Singapore’s Ambassador-at-large Tommy Koh at the U.S. embassy in Singapore on August 1, 2003.
Frank Lavin, former U.S. ambassador to Singapore under President George W. Bush (2001-2005) and current CEO for Export Now
CNBC: How does Trump gain credibility ahead of his first foreign trip?
Lavin: Any U.S. president begins with a fair amount of credibility because this is his first foreign trip and because he holds the office. His power, I think, stems not so much from personal charm or charisma, but from the power of the office he holds … That’s a baseline factor. Regardless of who he is, it’s still the United States. He’s still president of the United States. “
CNBC: If you’re Saudi Arabia or Israel and you hear about Trump spilling secrets to Russia, aren’t you going to ask yourself, “How do we trust this person?”
Lavin: Each of them has such overriding security issues that they say, “This is a fact of life.” Each of them, primarily because of Iran, has a pretty good working relationship with the [Trump] administration. Saudi Arabia and Israel are enormously concerned about Iran.
There’s this old saying from the Canadian Foreign Ministry: America is our best friend whether we like them or not. It’s just a practical view of reality. I think that’s what Saudis and Israelis would say: America is our best friend whether we like them or not.
CNBC: The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has invited leaders from other Gulf countries. How should Trump approach the whole Muslim ban issue?
Lavin: This is his first trip to a Muslim country. It’s reasonable to ask him to explain himself. I think the Saudi King is too dignified and the Saudi King won’t do it. But it behooves the president to give some kind of reference to his earlier statement on his views of Muslim countries … If I were advising the president, [I’d say] you need to speak to this issue before it comes up because it’s a reasonable question.
They might ask it. The media might ask it. Someone is going to say, “How can you be this champion last year of banning Muslim visitors and now you’re visiting Muslim countries?” I think he needs to have some kind of response to this point.
CNBC: If you were advising Trump, what would you tell him?
Lavin: My advice to the president would be to say you’ve got a core message in each country you’re visiting. It might have two to three elements to it. You’re there to define U.S. policy toward that country and establish a personal rapport with leadership … You’ve got to find a way to connect with local leaders so there is respect … You need to have a public posture that allows the general population to find you worthy of friendship.