As President Donald Trump landed in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia on Saturday with the winds of two weeks’ worth of existential crises at his back, an old Arab proverb came to mind.
“A foolish man,” the proverb states, “may be known by six things: Anger without cause, speech without profit, change without progress, inquiry without object, putting trust in a stranger, and mistaking foes for friends.”
He might, too, be known by a seventh thing: visiting a foreign land with a message of diplomacy, stability, and moderation while his homeland roils with controversies ignited in no small part due to his lack of all three.
But those controversies—the ones that White House insiders say threaten his presidency—took a backseat, in the president’s mind, to the one for which his predecessor faced years of scorn.
“I catch one American bowing here,” the president told those around him before deplaning from Air Force One, “and you're on the next Saudia flight home.”
Trump instead offered King Salman a firm, American handshake—enough to earn plaudits from U.S. pundits who saw in President Barack Obama’s bent-waist handshake in 2009 a dangerous supplication before a foreign autocrat.
(American presidents don’t bow to fundamentalist monarchs—they just sell them $350 billion worth of weapons.)
No less breathless was the coverage of co-first ladies Melania and Ivanka Trump, neither of whom wore a headscarf in their first public appearance in the deeply conservative Muslim country. Foreign women aren’t generally expected to wear head coverings in the kingdom, but that hasn’t prevented criticism from, well, certain corners during presidential visits in the past:
But scarcely had the president left the blistering airfield for the Royal Court palace before bowing, somehow, became an issue. As he was being bestowed with the Collar of Abdulaziz Al-Saud—the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s highest civilian honor, presented most typically to non-Muslim foreign heads of state— for “his efforts to strengthen the relationship between the two friendly countries,” Trump knelt. (Bowed, some said. Curtseyed, said others.)
As that and other non-troversies—Trump gave a thumb’s up, which anyone who has thumbed through a Lonely Planet travel guide in Barnes & Noble will tell you was an insult in the Middle East, at least before Hollywood and Starbucks homogenized global cultural norms—spawned tempests in Twitter teapots, however, the president appeared to appreciate the trappings of a country where it’s good to be king.
Ferried from location to location in a customized golf cart (the president’s preferred mode of transport), bestowed a gilded trinket the size of a hubcap (the president’s preferred metallurgical skill and scale), kicking up his heels in French Rococo reproductions (the president’s preferred design aesthetic), the witch hunts and fake news seemed miles away. They’d have to be—in Saudi Arabia, journalists are legally forbidden from writing anything “leading to disorder and division,” and witchcraft is punishable by death.
The al-Saud clearly knew which buttons to push: The striver from Queens was fêted in a style befitting Prince Ali Ababwa—Make way! Here he comes! Ring bells! Bang the drums!—and showcased the benefits of running a country where intrepid reporters and special counsels are the stuff of illegally pirated television dramas.
“This was a tremendous day,” Trump said at a bilateral meeting at the Ritz Hotel. “Tremendous investments. Hundreds of billions of dollars of investments into the United States, and jobs, jobs jobs.”
But even as cannons exploded and golden swords were waved and seven Saudi fighter jets spewed contrails in the tricolor of the American flag, the troubles posing a direct threat to Trump’s presidency seemed inescapable.
In a press conference on Saturday meant to focus on the signing of the $350 billion weapons deal with the kingdom, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was forced to answer questions regarding a different kind of bombshell: the Washington Post report that a White House advisor is considered a person of interest in the federal investigation into ties between Trump's presidential campaign and Russian intelligence
“I do not have any information or knowledge regarding the person of interest that's been referenced,” Tillerson said, sounding exhausted.
Even Trump’s host seemed to know that all was not well back in the president's own kingdom.
“Syria, too, used to be one of the most advanced countries,” King Salman told Trump ominously on the tarmac. “Unfortunately, they too brought destruction to their own country.”