Saudis give Trump a reception fit for a king

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.

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Tillerson hails ‘historic moment’ in U.S.-Saudi relations

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson talks with Saudi Deputy Crown Prince and Defense Minister Mohammed bin Salman during a presentation ceremony of The Collar of Abdulaziz Al Saud Medal to President Donald Trump at the Royal Court Palace on May 20, 2017, in Riyadh.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson talks with Saudi Deputy Crown Prince and Defense Minister Mohammed bin Salman during a presentation ceremony of The Collar of Abdulaziz Al Saud Medal to President Donald Trump at the Royal Court Palace on May 20, 2017, in Riyadh. | AP Photo

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson stressed strategic and economic partnerships in a joint address with Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Adel bin Ahmed Al-Jubeir in Riyadh Saturday, saying it was a “historic moment” in U.S.-Saudi relations.

Accompanying President Donald Trump on his first trip abroad as commander-in-chief — and hours after the administration announced some $109 billion in arms sales to Saudi Arabia and $350 billion in direct U.S. investment over 10 years by the Muslim-majority country — Tillerson referenced multiple potential threats facing the two countries.

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“We have to defeat ISIS on the battlefield, but we really have to defeat ISIS in the cyberspace,” he said, referencing the development of a new center for combating extremist ideology, to be based in Riyadh.

Tillerson also said the new defense deal — which includes upgrades to Saudi communications, missile defense, maritime, border and cyber security — lowers the demands on the U.S. military.

“This huge arms sales package reduces the burden on the United States to provide the same equipment to our own military forces,” he said. “It will strengthen Saudi security forces for the future so Saudi Arabia is more capable of carrying a greater share of the burden.”

Tillerson said Saudi Arabia’s direct investment in the U.S. would bring “hundreds of thousands” of jobs to American workers.

Earlier, Trump said it had been a “tremendous day; tremendous investments for the United States. Hundreds of billions of investments into the United States, and jobs jobs jobs.”

Al-Jubeir said the conversation in the U.S. and the broader Western world should change to “one of partnership,” while directly using Trump’s own rhetoric.

“We will have truly changed our world and we will truly drowned the voices of extremism and we will have drained the swamp from which extremism and terrorism emanates,” the foreign minister said.

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The Memo: Trump base shows signs of cracking

President Trump’s previously resilient base is showing signs of cracking.

A new Reuters/IPSOS tracking poll, released Friday afternoon, showed the president with a job approval rating of 75 percent among Republicans. 

Political professionals generally view it as worrying for any commander-in-chief if his approval ratings with his own party dip below 85 percent — and downright alarming if they go below 80 percent.

“Seventy-five [percent] is certainly a new number and I would want to see something that would either back that up or refute it,” said GOP pollster David Winston, whose resumé includes work for former Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.). “Certainly, if it were true, that is not where you would want to be.”

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While the IPSOS result was especially bad for Trump, it was not so far outside of the norm as to be a true outlier. 

A Monmouth University poll earlier in the week put Trump at 83 percent approval among Republicans, as did an Economist/YouGov poll. All or most of the responses for both surveys were, unlike the Reuters poll, gathered before a special counsel was appointed to look into allegations of collusion between Trump campaign associates and Russia.

Low poll ratings are not a new problem for Trump. Nor have they always doomed him. 

He won the White House despite the worst favorability ratings of any nominee of a major party in history. Head-to-head polls with Democratic nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonIvanka Trump tells Saudi women: ‘There’s still a lot of work to be done’ Tillerson: Focus on terrorism in Saudi Arabia will lead to improvements in human rights Congress still doesn’t know who directed Rosenstein to write critical Comey memo says Dem MORE also suggested he was headed for defeat. Even now, the president relishes reminding audiences of how wrong the pollsters were.

Trump has often taken solace from his belief that the people who backed him last November will stand by him, despite what he views as a sustained media campaign against him.

On Wednesday, in the eye of the storm over his firing of FBI director James Comey and revelations that he may have revealed classified information in a meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and the Kremlin’s ambassador to the U.S. Sergey Kislyak, Trump defended himself in a a speech at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in New London, Ct. 

“The people understand what I’m doing, and that’s the most important thing,” he said, “I didn’t get elected to serve the Washington media or special interests. I got elected to serve the forgotten men and women of our country, and that’s what I’m doing.”

Some Republican observers beyond the Beltway agree, at least to some degree, that the likely effects of the recent furors on Trump’s base may be exaggerated.

“I think there are reasons for Republicans to be concerned, obviously, but I don’t know if we can say definitively at this point what the reaction is going to be,” said Craig Robinson, a former political director of the Republican Party of Iowa.

“I would imagine there would have to be some sort of shrinkage in his support but I don’t think it is substantial — I think a lot of those people will give him the benefit of the doubt,” Robinson added. “It’s not as if there is an alternative, some other president they can be invested in.”

Trump has also declared that he is the victim of a “witch hunt.” The charge may resonate to some extent with his base, but even broadly sympathetic observers worry that it distracts from the factors that got him elected.

“Here’s the problem that the White House and Trump are running into: He was basically elected to deal with the economy and you saw that in the Rust Belt specifically: the economy, jobs and wages,” said Winston. “The challenge is that everything is off on a topic that has nothing to do with that.”

Trump’s base is already showing more signs of erosion than was the case with his predecessor, President Obama. In four major polls taken in May of Obama’s first year in office — 2009 — his approval rating among Democrats was pegged at between 88 and 93 percent. Trump lags that performance by about 10 points in the most recent surveys.

The bad news has kept coming for the president. Friday afternoon brought two damaging stories published within minutes. 

First, the New York Times reported that Trump had described Comey as a “nutjob” in his meeting with Russian officials. The Times also reported that Trump had told his visitors, “I faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off.”

Then the Washington Post reported that the investigation into alleged chicanery involving the Trump campaign and Russia had “identified a current White House official as a significant person of interest.” This person, the Post added, “is someone close to the president.”

Liberal critics, the media and a handful of Republicans have begun to mention the dreaded “i-word”: Impeachment. But even most of Trump’s GOP critics don’t believe he has seen a collapse of base support sufficient to make that a real possibility— yet.

“Right now it is unlikely because, as a first step, there has to be a massive leakage of support for Trump in Republican districts,” said Peter Wehner, a Trump critic who served in the administrations of the three Republican presidents who preceded him. “Republicans in the House aren’t going to screw up the courage they need to take on Trump unless there is support for it in their home districts.”

Still, if Trump keeps bleeding support among Republicans, his troubles will only become graver.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald TrumpDonald TrumpWhy Trump should disrupt the scandalous US-Saudi relationship Former deputy FBI director: Russia probe is not a ‘witch hunt’ Tom Perez: ‘Donald Trump has to go’ MORE’s presidency.

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Trump budget reflects White House internal divisions

The budget is expected to go much further than the $54 billion in spending cuts Trump called for in his preliminary "skinny budget."

The budget is expected to go much further than the $54 billion in spending cuts Trump called for in his preliminary “skinny budget.” | AP Photo

President Donald Trump will include an unorthodox blend of policy requests in his first official budget, combining uncharacteristically liberal demands with calls for the most extreme domestic spending cuts the country has ever seen.

Details leaked by the White House suggest the president’s fiscal year 2018 spending plan — expected Tuesday — reflects the administration’s internal divisions. It will simultaneously require states to provide the kind of paid family leave programs championed by Trump’s daughter Ivanka and propose slashing everything from disability payments to farm subsidies and public housing, reflecting the views of budget director Mick Mulvaney, a former member of the conservative House Freedom Caucus.

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The budget is expected to go much further than the $54 billion in spending cuts Trump called for in his preliminary “skinny budget” in March, which completely wiped out more than 60 domestic programs, according to multiple sources with knowledge of the document.

In a decade, the proposed cap on discretionary spending is expected to be roughly $360 billion, according to one source — nearly $200 billion below current domestic spending levels. That figure would bring Congress back to 2001 spending levels, likely be too extreme for most Republicans.

But at the same time, Trump will propose adding $200 billion in federal infrastructure spending over ten years in the hope of spurring an additional $800 billion in public and private investment. His family leave proposal — requiring states to provide six weeks of paid leave to new parents, could cost $25 billion, and goes beyond what most GOP lawmakers support.

The internal contradictions are already spurring a hostile response from Republicans ultimately in charge of writing federal spending levels.

As some figures have leaked out ahead of the budget release, GOP legislators have reacted with fury, speaking directly to Mulvaney in recent days.

Plenty of Republicans on Capitol Hill have publicly pressured Trump to roll back what they called draconian cuts to programs like the State Department, the National Institutes of Health and the Appalachian Regional Commission.

“I’m deeply concerned about the severity of the domestic cuts,” Rep. Hal Rogers (R-Ky.), who oversees spending for international programs, told POLITICO on Friday. “We’ll see how that changes.”

“This is Mulvaney’s budget,” Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho) said this week. “Like I want to go home after having voting against Meals on Wheels and say, ‘Oh it’s a bad program, keeping seniors alive.’ There’s just some of the stuff in here that doesn’t make any sense. … Frankly, you can’t pass these budgets on the floor.”

Meanwhile, on the issue of paid family leave, GOP lawmakers have advocated a more hands-off approach than the Trump administration will propose. Congressional Republicans have bucked Democratic calls for a government-run insurance program to facilitate paid leave and have instead pushed legislation that would provide tax credits to businesses that voluntarily provide that benefit to employees.

And Trump can’t expect support from Democrats who anticipate Republicans will switch out the president’s liberal-leaning proposal on paid leave for their own plans.

“I’m not going to watch it get watered down just for the sake of a press release saying, ‘We voted for paid leave,'” Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), a top appropriator who has introduced paid leave legislation herself, said in an interview Friday.

With Mulvaney set to testify before spending committees in both the House and Senate in the days immediately following the Tuesday budget release, DeLauro and her Democratic colleagues are prepared to personally attack the OMB director, who has justified calls for massive domestic cuts by suggesting programs like Meals on Wheels don’t deliver results.

“You know, have real-life experience. Don’t just sit someplace and talk about it,” DeLauro said Friday, suggesting Mulvaney should do a ride-along with a Meals on Wheels volunteer to witness the program’s effect on senior citizens.

The document released Tuesday will also offer the first glimpse at how the new White House would tackle mandatory spending — the largest driver of the federal deficit — at the same time it proposes the largest-ever increase in defense spending.

Lawmakers and aides say Trump will not cut funding from Medicare or Social Security, abiding by a highly visible campaign promise despite its complex budgetary implications. But some safety-net advocates believe the White House could still seek reductions to those programs by arguing that the administration is simply trying to eliminate waste and fraud.

Several sources said the Trump budget is expected to trim parts of Medicare that don’t directly fund benefits. And some also said the budget will target Social Security Disability Insurance, which is technically separate from the far larger program for seniors.

Given the unpopularity of Trump’s proposed cuts, even among those in his own party, Democrats say their opposition will be easily waged.

“In the skinny budget, they telegraphed dramatic and draconian cuts,” Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), ranking member on the House subcommittee that handles funding for military construction and Veterans Affairs, told reporters Friday. “If they’re worse than that, then I have my battle arms already.”

But opposition to Trump’s budget is tempered by the fact that no part of any White House budget is destined to become law.

Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.), a top appropriator who speaks frequently with Mulvaney, said a White House budget is purely symbolic. He said he is more anxious about the House budget, which will set the amount of money Congress can spend next year.

“I’ve often said, the budget around here is an exercise in confederate money. It’s not real,” Dent said. “We spend a lot of time fighting about things that are aspirational and messaging points.”

http://www.politico.com

Comey’s father rips Trump: ‘He’s nuts’

James Comey’s father defended the former FBI director on Friday while returning criticism of President Trump, calling him “nuts.”

“I never was crazy about Trump,” J. Brien Comey, 86, told NorthJersey.com for a column on the view of residents in the former FBI chief’s hometown of Allendale, N.J.

“I’m convinced that he’s nuts,” continued the elder Comey, a Republican who formerly served as a borough councilman, referring to Trump. “I thought he belonged in an institution. He was crazy before he became president. Now he’s really crazy.”

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The comments come after Trump called the fired FBI chief a “showboat” and “grandstander.” On Friday, The New York Times also reported that Trump referred to Comey as a “nut job,” saying firing him eased “great pressure” from the Russia probe.

Trump fired James Comey as FBI director earlier this month. Lawmakers questioned the timing and motive for the ouster, which came amid an ongoing investigation into possible coordination between Trump’s campaign and Russia during the election.

The fired FBI chief agreed Friday to testify before the Senate Intelligence Committee, although a date for the hearing has not yet been announced. He is expected to say Trump attempted to influence FBI investigations, CNN reported Friday.

The New York Times broke the news earlier this week that Trump asked Comey in a mid-February meeting to let “go” of his investigation into former national security adviser Michael Flynn and his ties to Russia. Trump denied that he made that request.

Comey reportedly maintained a paper trail to document what he viewed as the president’s improper attempts to influence his agency’s investigation. Comey reportedly went so far to avoid Trump as to try to blend in with curtains during a White House event with Trump earlier this year.

http://thehill.com