RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — President Donald Trump had to travel to someone else’s kingdom to get the respect he has always craved.
From his airport greeting by King Salman of Saudi Arabia — a courtesy that was never extended to his predecessor, President Barack Obama — to the military flyover and cannons that accompanied his descent from Air Force One, to a lavish cardamon coffee ceremony and medal presentation at the Royal Court, the American president on Saturday was treated like a real-life king.
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For Trump, a son of Queens who has never overcome his outer-borough-outsider mentality, his election as president has only seemed to increase his feelings that everyone is against him. “No politician in history, and I say this with great surety, has been treated worse or more unfairly,” Trump railed during a commencement address at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy last week.
On Twitter, he has complained about the ongoing investigation into possible collusion between his 2016 campaign and the Russians, crying out: “This is the single greatest witch hunt of a politician in American history!”
But in Saudi Arabia, a kingdom eager to literally roll out the red carpet for a new American president, there was no one to delegitimize him — and his James Comey-related problems seemed to be 6,000 miles away.
From the airport to the Ritz Hotel, Trump passed American flags and billboards displaying his face next to King Salman’s image, under the slogan “Together We Prevail.” At night, a large image of Trump was beamed onto the outside of his hotel.
In a grand reception room at the Royal Court, decorated with glitzy chandeliers, a plush blue-and-white carpet and high-backed chairs, Trump was awarded the gold medallion, known as the King Abdul Aziz Collar. The medal, considered the highest honor in Saudi Arabia, was bestowed on Trump for “his efforts to strengthen the relationship between the two friendly countries,” and placed around Trump’s neck by the hands of the king.
Trump, whose own glitzy tastes in interior design seem in line with those of the wealthy Gulf kingdom, appeared engaged and relaxed as he observed a long and monotonous bill-signing ceremony, which included defense cooperation agreements worth $110 billions. During the ceremony, American corporate executives and their Saudi counterparts exchanged thick, green folders, shook hands for a camera, and then turned and acknowledged Trump with a nod and, for some, a slight bow.
Even Trump’s aides seem to be enjoying a break from the unrelenting pressure cooker of the West Wing. Son-in-law Jared Kushner, after participating in a multi-course lunch at the Royal Court, greeted National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster with a high-five. Ivanka Trump, dressed in a long, black-and-white patterned dress, carried on an animated conversation with a representative of the Saudi delegation during the coffee ceremony. Trump’s top economic adviser, Gary Cohn, approached reporters ahead of a bilateral meeting with King Salman to say the visit, so far, was going “really well.”
“I think he’s realizing how historic this is,” another White House official said about halfway through the day.
For his part, Trump kept silent for most of the day, speaking in hushed tones, through an interpreter, to the king, but making no public remarks in front of the press.
His first words since landing here in Riyadh this morning were brief, and delivered around 6 p.m. local time.
“This was a tremendous day,” Trump said Saturday evening, at a bilateral meeting back at the Ritz Hotel with the Crown Prince. “Tremendous investments. Hundreds of billions of dollars of investments into the United States, and jobs, jobs jobs.”
The first day of Trump’s nine-day, five-country international tour included the portion of the trip that was always expected to be the most enjoyable for him. Despite his mushrooming scandals and low approval ratings at home, Trump remains extremely popular in Saudi Arabia. The kingdom is also eager for a fresh start with a new president after its relationship with Obama soured when he signed the Iranian nuclear deal in 2015.
The relationship with Trump makes sense for the Saudi royal family on a personal level, too. Like Trump, King Salman has been married three times, according to a short biography provided to reporters by the U.S. Embassy in Riyadh.
“They love him, they can relate to him,” Ilan Goldenberg, a director of the Middle East Security Program at the Center for a New American Security, said of Trump’s standing in the Gulf states. “They feel comfortable with family-run businesses.”
Trump was eager for a fresh start, too. As he left the nation’s capitol for his first international trip as president, the Washington Post reported that a current White House official is under federal investigation for possible collusion with the Russians during the campaign; and the New York Times revealed that Trump admitted to the Russians during a meeting in the Oval Office that firing Comey took “great pressure” off of him.
If Saturday was a day of being feted, Sunday requires still more from a president who is still untested on the international stage. His aides say he is still working through five different drafts of a speech on Islam he is slated to deliver, which will be his first major foreign policy address.
That process took up much of his flying time. Chief of Staff Reince Priebus said Trump barely slept on the plane, and spent most of the 12-hour flight working.
The speech, however, is expected to be inclusive — a change of tone from the anti-Muslim rhetoric that defined Trump’s presidential campaign. At a hastily organized press conference on Saturday evening, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called on Iran’s president “to begin a process of dismantling Iran’s network of terrorism,” and called out the country for repressing free speech. There, he made no mention of Saudi Arabia’s record on silencing free speech.
And the traveling White House seemed to want to keep the focus on the Middle East, and away from its troubles at home. The administration sent out Tillerson to speak with reporters, perhaps in part because he was able to say he had “no knowledge” of the alleged White House official, described but not named in the Washington Post, who is a person of interest in the ongoing Russia probe.