Trump’s message to Arab leaders: Do more to fight extremism

Citing what he called a “battle between good and evil,” President Trump urged a summit of Arab leaders Sunday to do far more to fight extremism and terrorism, refining his harsh anti-Muslim campaign rhetoric for a joint call to arms in the birthplace of Islam.

In the first major foreign policy address of his presidency, Trump also made clear that his administration would break with the two previous occupants of the White House by not promoting human rights or democratic reforms in a region rife with rigidly controlled societies.

“We are not here to lecture,” he said. “We are not here to tell other people how to live, what to do, who to be, or how to worship.”

Yet his speech was notable for putting the onus on his audience — the leaders of more than 50 Arab and Muslim nations packed in an ornate hall under giant glittering chandeliers — to “take the lead in combating radicalization” and to “take on the burden” of battling terrorism.

American Muslim groups also reacted with caution, applauding Trump’s conciliatory tone, but skeptical of his intentions.

“One speech cannot outweigh years of anti-Muslim rhetoric and policy proposals — including an attempt to enact a Muslim ban by executive order, which his administration continues to defend in court,” said Nihad Awad, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. “New policies and concrete actions — not mere rhetoric — are what is needed to reset relations with the Muslim world.”

For more White House coverage, follow @mikememoli on Twitter.

Staff writer Brian Bennett contributed to this report.


A tale of two princes: A king’s son and a president’s son-in-law drive Trump’s visit

Leaving his troubles at home, Trump gets a royal welcome in Saudi Arabia

To Saudis, President Trump has become ‘Abu Ivanka’

Get live updates on our Essential Washington news feed


3:35 p.m.: This article has been updated with additional details.

9:25 a.m.: This article has been updated with additional quotes and background.

8:25 a.m.: This story has been updated with Trump’s speech.

This article was first published at 6 a.m.

Tillerson holds a press conference without U.S. media

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson attends a press conference following the Arab Islamic American Summit in Riyadh, on May 21, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / Fayez Nureldine (Photo credit should read FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP/Getty Images)


Secretary of State Rex Tillerson held a news conference with the Saudi foreign minister in Riyadh on Sunday, but he left the American media behind.

State Department spokesperson R.C. Hammond said Tillerson — who was traveling with Donald Trump on his first foreign trip as president — was invited at the last minute to participate in a news conference with Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Adel bin Ahmed Al-Jubeir. Only foreign media were invited.

“Regrettably, there was not enough time to alert or make arrangements for U.S. media to participate. Under different circumstances, U.S. media would have been alerted,” Hammond said, in a rare admission of an error by the administration. “Steps were immediately taken to ensure a transcript could be produced and distributed to reporters. Ideally, members of the U.S. press corps should have had the option to attend the press conference and ask questions.”

Tillerson and Jubeir had taken a few questions from U.S. reporters on the trip on Saturday. Tillerson is also now expected to speak to reporters on Air Force One en route to Israel on Monday.

White House deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said U.S. reporters “were not excluded at all” and that Tillerson had agreed to join the news conference “on the spot.”

A rushed transcript by the Daily Mail’s David Martosko was sent out to the White House pool on Sunday, transcribed from Saudi TV.

The U.S. secretary of state has at times had a strained relationship with the reporters who cover him. The State Department has not been holding regular daily press briefings, as previous administrations did, and on his first trip to Asia, Tillerson did not take any pool reporters, instead cherry-picking a White House reporter from the conservative-leaning viral news site Independent Journal Review for an exclusive interview.

The reporter did not act as a pool reporter, sharing material with other news outlets, but did publish the transcript of her interview, along with a longer feature piece on Tillerson. In that interview, Tillerson was less than enthusiastic about media access and said the status of pool reporters would be “trip dependent.” On his next trip, Tillerson allowed two reporters acting as a pool to accompany him.

Hadas Gold is a reporter at Politico.

Official: Trump’s ‘radical Islamic terrorism’ wording changed because he’s ‘exhausted’

A senior White House official said Sunday President Trump mixed up the wording of his prepared remarks in Saudi Arabia because he was “exhausted.”

“He’s just an exhausted guy,” the official told reporters on background after many pointed out that Trump avoided the term “radical Islamic terrorism” during the speech to leaders of more than 50 Muslim-majority nations.

Trump diverted slightly from his prepared remarks in using “Islamic” rather than “Islamist.”

After remaining largely on script, that diversion caught the attention of many listeners who were curious to see whether Trump would use the phrase.


Instead, Trump used words terms like “Islamic extremism, and the Islamists and Islamic terror of all kinds.”

He avoided the phrase while he called on the Muslim community to fight against militant threats.

“That means honestly confronting the crisis of Islamic extremism, and the Islamists and Islamic terror of all kinds. And it means standing together against the murder of innocent Muslims, the oppression of women, the persecution of Jews and the slaughter of Christians,” Trump said.

The senior official argued that Trump delivered a tough, and maybe even tougher-than-normal, speech despite dropping the phrase.

The expression “radical Islamic terrorism” became a centerpiece for Trump’s presidential campaign, with the business magnate claiming the term was a pivotal point in addressing modern threats.

Trump repeatedly criticized the Obama administration and former Secretary of State Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonHouse Democrats expand 2018 targets The Hill’s 12:30 Report Podesta: Trump ‘unfit’ for office MORE, his Democratic opponent for president, for not using the phrase when talking about the fight against terrorist threats.

“I am going to keep radical Islamic terrorists the hell out of our country,” Trump said at a rally in Ocala, Fla., in October, adding that Clinton “won’t even use the term.”

The U.S. and Saudi Arabia jointly cooperate in efforts to combat terrorist groups — such as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and al Qaeda — that have seen their influence stretch throughout the Middle East.

Trump also attend the inauguration of the kingdom’s new Global Center for Combatting Extremist Ideology Sunday, which aims to combat terrorist propaganda and messaging.

McConnell steps into Obamacare firing line

Mitch McConnell has sidestepped the Russia controversy that’s dogged Donald Trump all year and eluded the wrath rained down on Paul Ryan over the GOP’s Obamacare repeal effort.

But the health care reform battle is now squarely in McConnell’s court: He will decide the contents of the Senate’s plan, most likely behind closed doors. And he is on the hook for getting something through a sharply divided Senate Republican Conference in the midst of an increasingly imperiled presidency.

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McConnell’s role will come into sharp relief this week, with Trump out of the country and the Russia spotlight shifting somewhat away from Congress after the naming of a special prosecutor. The Congressional Budget Office on Wednesday will deliver a highly anticipated report on the House health care bill that is expected to show it would cause huge coverage losses. That will provide a new round of ammunition to Obamacare supporters, even as it allows the Senate to truly start writing its own plan.

So far, McConnell has led a series of closed-door meetings with senators, where they’ve mainly aired their grievances with the House bill without making substantive progress, according to attendees. In the coming days, McConnell will have to move to break the impasse.

“He’ll have to make some decisions. I’m sure it will be with the recommendation and input from our members, but there will come a point in which we’ve talked some of this stuff to death,” said Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), a close McConnell lieutenant. “He’s made it very clear, at the end of this we’re going to have to vote.”

McConnell (R-Ky.) is handling the situation so far in his typically cautious manner, feeling out his conference but offering no positions of his own. A 13-person working group he appointed has swelled at times to more than 20 Republicans so that each member can feel his or her voice is getting heard and is a part of the process; McConnell also has made health care the topic of each his conference’s thrice-weekly lunches.

The GOP leader is treating the frequent gatherings on health care like a focus group that will inform what he and Sens. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, Orrin Hatch of Utah and Budget Committee Chairman Mike Enzi of Wyoming will write when they put pen to paper.

“Mitch right now is listening very carefully. He’s being very careful not to weigh in, thinking that this needs to come from the membership,” said a GOP senator. “He’s not trying to force a particular point of view.”

McConnell’s strategy is to keep the debate within his conference for as long as possible. There will be no public hearings as a bill is drafted, according to several Republican senators and aides, and he’s imploring senators not to leak.

In the House, Republican leaders were accused of ignoring input from many members on the front end, which engendered resentment and opposition once the proposal was unveiled. McConnell knows a take-it-or-leave-it approach — House leaders were ultimately forced to accommodate a series of last-minute changes — wouldn’t fly in the Senate.

“We’re not subject to cajolery very much. So people are going to genuinely feel comfortable, not just that we’re doing something that the president wants,” said Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.). McConnell will focus “in the field of persuasion rather than coercion. His job is to bring us to a comfort level.”

Only the faintest outline of a plan is taking shape: Senators are working to make the House bill’s tax credits more generous and to find a way to wind down Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion more slowly, all within the limits of what’s allowed under the majority-vote budget reconciliation procedure. The Senate is expected to repeal many Obamacare regulations but not go as far as the House did in rolling back protections for people with preexisting conditions.

A vote on a final bill could occur as soon as June but no later than July, said Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn of Texas. Still, some doubt that aggressive timeline.

“We’re not there yet,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). “As a matter of fact, we’re a long ways from there.”

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), a key moderate vote in the health care debate and a critic of the House bill, said senators are “all analyzing lots of different options” in the working group and other informal groups — such as a collection of lawmakers from states that expanded Medicaid — but at this point, “people are in different places.”

It will be up to McConnell to write the legislation that bridges those gaps.

In the end, said Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), the bill “probably comes out of the leadership office for us to react to.”

The idea, according to several lawmakers, is that if the relatively ideologically diverse working group can agree to get behind a bill, that would get the GOP close to 50 votes. From there, McConnell would have to wrangle the last several votes.

“It’s pretty easy to put together 46 or 47,” said Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.).” It’s getting to 50 that’s a challenge.”

Some Republican senators were privately hoping it would never reach this point. They would have preferred that the House bill fail, to spare them having to take up a measure they believe would cause too many people to lose insurance and do too little to lower premiums.

McConnell wants to have a vote on an Obamacare repeal bill, whether it passes or not, so the Senate can move on to tax reform and spending bills.

“We’re on a track to write a bill and vote on it,” Alexander said. Whether it will be successful, “I can’t say,” he added.

The CBO score will bring some much-needed focus. The Senate will have to find as much or more in savings that the House bill did, setting the parameters for lawmakers but also constricting their choices.

Also this week, the Trump administration and the House have to provide the courts with an update on a lawsuit involving funding for Obamacare cost-sharing subsidies. Many Republican senators want the payments — which the House argued in a 2014 lawsuit were being made illegally — to continue so that insurance markets don’t collapse before the repeal bill can move forward.

Trump has told aides he wants to halt the funding, but a final decision hasn’t been made.

Once the CBO score and lawsuit are clarified, McConnell, his staff and key committee leaders will try to strike as soon as they have an idea what can pass. In the minds of Republican leaders, the time is drawing near.

“We’ve been talking about this for seven years … everybody’s got a good idea, and that’s wonderful and it helps us come up with a better product,” Cornyn said. “But at some point you’ve got to fall behind one bill instead of saying, ‘Well, I have a better idea.’”

Donald of Arabia

Those who expected Donald Trump to fly into Riyadh and insult his Saudi hosts with the kinds of broadsides he delivered on the campaign trail against Islam and Muslims needn’t have worried.

The president who once accused Saudi Arabia of complicity in the 9/11 attacks praised its “magnificent” and “sacred land.” He looked comfortable trading pleasantries and sipping coffee with King Salman, the aging scion of the country’s founding ruler, King Abdulaziz Ibn Saud. He soaked up the gaudy chandeliers, the gilded wall trimmings. Trump even bobbed up and down during the ardah, the traditional sword dance that desert tribes once performed before they went into battle.

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The images on TV and on Twitter looked like a Michael Moore fever dream — and Democrats couldn’t stop harping on the “curtsy” Trump made as he accepted an award from the Saudi king, just as presidents Obama and Bush did before him.

The pageantry was not subtle, but the real import of Trump’s visit, and especially his carefully crafted speech, was to announce a new alliance between America and the Sunni autocrats of the Arab world, aimed at Shiite Iran.

No more Bush-like paeans to “freedom” or even Obama-esque warnings about being on the “right side of history” — Trump dispensed with the usual presidential to-be-sures about the democratic shortcomings of America’s regional allies and said flatly that defeating terrorism “transcends every other consideration.”

“This is a battle between good and evil,” Trump declared in one of the speech’s more striking passages, which bore the unmistakable echo of George W. Bush’s famous September 2001 declaration, “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.” Elsewhere, he demanded that his audience “drive out the terrorists and extremists,” repeating the words “drive them out” several times for emphasis. He spoke of combating “wicked ideology” and “foot soldiers of evil,” phrases that would be right at home on an old David Frum notepad.

Indeed, the speech had the flavor of an early Bush address, before his administration needed a rationale for spending billions to rebuild a shattered Iraq and the “Freedom Agenda” became the ostensible organizing principle of his second-term foreign policy.

Trump only hinted at the complicity of Gulf Arab regimes in promoting a radical, sectarian version of Islam, praising their apparent newfound willingness to crack down on extremism and terrorist financing. But he was explicit in condemning Iran, Saudi Arabia’s sworn enemy, for stoking “the fires of sectarian conflict and terror” in the region.

“Until the Iranian regime is willing to be a partner for peace,” he said, “all nations of conscience must work together to isolate Iran, deny it funding for terrorism, and pray for the day when the Iranian people have the just and righteous government they deserve.”

There was little effort to reach out to the 40 million Iranians who had just voted to re-elect Hassan Rouhani, the pragmatic president who won by pledging greater openness to the world, albeit within the severe constraints of Iran’s theocratic system.

As for the Sunni monarchies and military dictatorships like that run by Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt, Trump promised to stop pestering them about human rights and political freedoms. “Our partnerships will advance security through stability, not through radical disruption,” he said. “And, wherever possible, we will seek gradual reforms – not sudden intervention.”

All that is exactly the kind of rhetoric the Sunni strongmen of the region yearned for during the Obama years, when the United States dialed back its usual criticism of Iran as it pursued the much-maligned nuclear deal, while pressuring Arab leaders to respond to the demands of their people.

Still, parts of the speech could have been given by either of Trump’s predecessors — respectful language about religion, the observation that Muslims have suffered the most from terrorism, the patronizing evocation of past civilizational glories, like the pyramids. What was missing, though, was any sense of why Trump thinks terrorism was on the rise, and how he plans to combat it.

It was as if, as former Bush administration official Elliott Abrams put it, the terrorists were aliens from outer space, rather than the twisted product of broken societies that have yet to divine how to stop churning them out. “He offered no explanation of what was producing this phenomenon,” Abrams noted in an email to my colleague Annie Karni. “Trump had no theory, and therefore could not suggest what might be done to prevent more extremists from rising.”

Bush, and advisers like Abrams, had a theory — that a lack of freedom and human
development had created a malignancy in the Arab world, which in turn was spawning religious radicalism and terrorists. Obama seemed to buy into the idea, too — just ask Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak — though he sanded off the sharper edges of Bush’s rhetoric and lacked his messianic fervor. But where the Bush team spoke expansively about defeating Islamist ideology, Obama’s more risk-averse advisers aimed for narrower victories, like the “degradation” of specific terrorist groups. And they also made much of the need to curb the abuses of the Bush years, though an internal revolt against practices like waterboarding had already taken hold in his second term.

Very little of any of it, as Trump suggested on Sunday, has seemed to work, and he promised to “apply new approaches informed by experience and judgment.” But he also warned several times that the United States wouldn’t be bearing any burden or paying any price to vanquish the terrorists that he had once boasted would be quickly and easily defeated. “The nations of the Middle East cannot wait for American power to crush this enemy for them,” Trump said. “The nations of the Middle East will have to decide what kind of future they want for themselves, for their countries, and for their children.”

Trump is offering, in short, a war on terror without the pretense of idealism. There has always been a strong odor of hypocrisy hanging over the U.S. relationship with regimes like Saudi Arabia, and perhaps there’s something refreshing in Trump’s “we are not here to lecture” candor.

The United States has, after all, very little real leverage or will to remake Arab societies in America’s image — particularly ones that buy $110 billion of our weapons. All too often, U.S. criticism of the democratic failings of its allies seems meant more for our domestic consumption than for foreign audiences, who have learned to tune it out. And presidents of both parties have almost always prioritized core U.S. interests — like the Iran nuclear deal over suffering Syrians — when forced to make a choice.

Ben Rhodes, President Obama’s former speechwriter and foreign policy alter ego, got an earful on Twitter when he complained that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was foolish to slam Iran’s record on human rights while standing next to the foreign minister of Saudi Arabia, whose record is arguably worse. “Really undercuts US credibility when it looks like we only raise human rights issues for geopolitical purposes,” he wrote.

“300,000 Syrians were unavailable for comment,” one Rhodes critic shot back.

 Blake Hounshell is the editor in chief of POLITICO Magazine.