CNN reports that top White House adviser Stephen Miller is drafting the speech on Islam that President Trump is slated to deliver in Saudi Arabia later this week. As you may recall, Miller was also at the center of crafting and defending the administration’s controversial immigration ban, which has been blocked by the courts because it unconstitutionally bars people from entering the country based on their religion.
Miller’s role perfectly captures the problem with this speech: Trump and his top advisers captivated his base by engaging in the worst Islamophobic rhetoric, perpetuating slurs about Muslims in the United States and around the world. But if Trump uses this speech to make amends for his past statements, he’ll alienate the very base of supporters who were the targets of this anti-Muslim strategy.
The administration is suggesting that he will, in fact, try to make such amends. National security adviser H.R. McMaster, who is also helping to write the speech, told reporters that it will be “an inspiring but direct speech on the need to confront radical ideology and the president’s hopes for a peaceful vision of Islam to dominate across the world.” McMaster further promised that the speech will “unite the broader Muslim world against common enemies of all civilization” and “demonstrate America’s commitment to our Muslim partners.”
But experts I spoke with today warned that this speech is so fraught with pitfalls that they are surprised Trump is even attempting it. They say handling such a nuanced topic as religion is a challenge even for the most learned minds and skilled orators. Yet Trump faces that problem and the additional challenge of striking a balance that is unique to his political situation.
Should Trump deliver the speech McMaster promises, it might briefly please his Muslim audience in Riyadh, but anger his right-wing base at home — something Trump seems unlikely to risk given his current precarious political and legal circumstances. On the other hand, if he were to say something to irk his Muslim audience that might satisfy his domestic base, he could sabotage the purpose of the trip and the speech itself: to solidify cooperative partnerships between the United States and Muslim countries to jointly combat terrorism.
“The downsides are enormous and the upsides are few,” said Will McCants, director of the Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World at the Brookings Institution. “In order to thread that needle, he would have to demonstrate a level of nuance that we have not seen from him.”
“I would shy away from giving a talk like this in this country, much less in Riyadh,” McCants added.
Trump faces all manner of pitfalls. His first test will be whether he says or does anything to erroneously suggest that Saudi Arabia, a repressive regime that enforces Wahhabism, an extreme version of Islam, is representative of the faith. “Much of what Saudi Arabia encourages as proper Islam is not what many Muslims in the West would accept,” said Daniel Byman, a professor in the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University and a terrorism expert.
The risks are heightened for Trump not just because of his unpredictability, but also because of his — and his inner circle’s — anti-Muslim track record. It’s hard to imagine that Trump would back away from a posture that earned him so much adoration from his base, or from his defense of his immigration ban, in which he has invested substantial domestic political capital.
“I don’t see President Trump as someone who’s going to walk away from that, “said John Espisito, director of the Bridge Initiative, a project at Georgetown University that studies Islamophobia. “He’s not someone who says ‘I got it wrong.'”
But even if Trump were to try to backpedal from his anti-Muslim rhetoric, it still might not necessarily be credible to his audience in Riyadh. As Espisito pointed out, the Trump team’s Islamophobia runs very deep: His top advisers have claimed that Islam is not a religion, but rather a dangerous political ideology. Trump himself has said, “I think Islam hates us” and that the Koran “teaches some negative vibe.” Top strategist Stephen K. Bannon has compared Islam to Nazism, communism and fascism. Trump adviser Sebastian Gorka has refused to say whether Trump himself thinks Islam is a religion.
“With all of that baggage, it’s a pretty tough thing to go in and want to talk about Islam,” said Espisito. “There are going to be an awful lot of people who are going to see it as transparent and hypocritical.”
Beyond this, Trump would have to actually reverse policy — for example, by dropping his immigration ban— to render any possible conciliatory rhetoric even remotely credible. “If the president extends an olive branch but then doesn’t implement any policy changes,” said Byman, “that’s going to send a louder message than a speech.”
Indeed, the risk is that Trump’s speech could make things worse. Byman warned that if Trump commits an accidental misstep or, perhaps worse, is derogatory— which can hardly be ruled out — his speech could potentially further a widespread perception in the Muslim world that the United States is “hostile to Islam.”
Most crucially, said McCants, Trump’s speech could undermine the United States’ relationship with the countries that have agreed to partner with it in combating terrorism. “He doesn’t have to say happy things about Islam to sell them on the partnership,” said McCants. But if he says anything to alienate Muslims, it could “make it harder for Muslim countries to partner with us.”
And that, in the end, could make it harder to achieve Trump’s own stated goal of defeating what he calls “radical Islamic terrorism” than if he had not given a speech on Islam at all.