Trump receives regal welcome in Saudi Arabia
By Julie Pace and Jonathan Lemire
RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — President Donald Trump, in the first stop of his maiden trip abroad, received a regal welcome Saturday in Saudi Arabia, feted by the wealthy kingdom as he aims to forge strong alliances to combat terrorism while pushing past the multiple controversies threatening to engulf his young administration.
On one day, Trump appeared successful in keeping his domestic woes an ocean away, as he basked in the pageantry that began with an elaborate airport welcome ceremony punctuated by a military flyover and a handshake from Saudi King Salman.
“That was a tremendous day. Tremendous investments in the United States,” Trump said after a late day meeting with the Saudi crown prince, his only utterances to the press by late in the day. “Hundreds of billions of dollars of investments into the United States and jobs, jobs, jobs.”
Trump is the only American president to make Saudi Arabia, or any majority Muslim country, his first stop overseas – a choice designed in part to show respect to the region after more than a year of Trump’s harsh anti-Muslim campaign rhetoric.
The visit kicked off an ambitious international debut for Trump. After two days of meetings here, Trump will travel to Israel, have an audience with Pope Francis at the Vatican and meet with allies at a NATO summit in Brussels and the Group of 7 powerful nations in Sicily.
Trump waved from the doorway after Air Force One touched down and before descending the staircase with first lady Melania Trump. The 81-year-old King Salman, who used a cane for support, was brought to the steps of the plane in a golf cart. The leaders exchanged pleasantries and Trump said it was “a great honor” to be there.
Several jets then flew overhead leaving a red, white and blue trail.
At a later ceremony at the grand Saudi Royal Court, the king placed the Collar of Abdulaziz Al Saud, the nation’s highest civilian honor, around Trump’s neck. The medal, given to Trump for his efforts to strengthen ties in the region, has also been bestowed on Russian President Vladimir Putin, British Prime Minister Theresa May and Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama.
The king and Trump were overheard discussing natural resources and arms, and the king bemoaned the destruction caused by Syria’s civil war. Trump also agreed to a defense cooperation deal with the Saudis, pledging $110 billion effective immediately and up to $350 billion over 10 years, as well as some private sector agreements. The military package includes tanks, combat ships, missile defense systems, radar and communications, and cybersecurity technology.
White House officials hope the trip, complete with images of the accompanying pomp and pageantry of a president abroad, will help Trump recalibrate after one of the most difficult stretches of his young presidency. The White House bungled the president’s stunning firing of FBI Director James Comey, who was overseeing a federal investigation into possible ties between Trump’s campaign and Russia. This week, the Justice Department relented to pressure from Democrats and named former FBI chief Robert Mueller as special counsel to lead the probe.
But fresh news reports about the Russia investigation surfaced shortly after Trump departed and threatened to overshadow the nine-day trip.
The New York Times reported that Trump called Comey “a real nut job” while discussing the ongoing investigation with two Russian officials in the Oval Office earlier this month. He also told them that firing Comey had “taken off” the “great pressure” he was feeling from the investigation, the Times reported.
Meanwhile, The Washington Post reported that an unidentified senior Trump adviser was being considered a “person of interest” in the investigation. Separately, Comey agreed to testify at an upcoming, open hearing of the Senate intelligence committee, the panel said.
Saudi’s ruling family grew deeply frustrated with Obama’s detente with Iran and his restrained approach on Syria. The king did not greet Obama at the airport as he did Saturday with Trump.
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, standing shoulder to shoulder with Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir, reaffirmed their nations’ joint commitment to capping Iranian aggression. But Tillerson hinted that the Trump administration may not look to completely shut Iran out, saying he’d be willing to speak to his Iranian counterpart “at the right time.” He said he had no current plans to do so.
Billboards featuring images of Trump and the king and emblazoned with the motto “Together we prevail,” dotted Riyadh’s highways, and Trump’s hotel was bathed in red, white and blue lights and, at times, an image of the president’s face.
The First Lady and Trump’s daughter, Ivanka, both eschewed a headscarf. Trump had criticized former-lady Michelle Obama for not wearing a headscarf during a 2015 visit to the kingdom.
Ivanka’s presence dominated Arabic Twitter traffic, with the phrase “bint Trump” — Arabic for daughter of Trump — trending.
On Sunday, he’ll deliver a speech on Islam and hold meetings with more than 50 Arab and Muslim leaders, who are converging on Riyadh for a regional summit focused largely on combating the Islamic State and other extremist groups.
Trump will call for unity in the fight against radicalism in the Muslim world, casting the challenge as a “battle between good and evil” and urging Arab leaders to “drive out the terrorists from your places of worship,” according to a draft of the speech obtained by The Associated Press. The draft also notably did not contain the words “radical Islamic terror,” a phrase Trump repeatedly criticized Hillary Clinton for not using during last year’s campaign.
Associated Press writer Jon Gambrell contributed to this report from Dubai.