After two weeks of what one The Washington Post writer calls “nearly unrelenting disaster of bad decisions and bad news,” Trump embarked on his first overseas trip as president to visit Saudi Arabia on Saturday. Some supporters and conservative websites exulted as soon as he stepped off the plane — quick to contrast it with a similar meeting at the start of Obama's presidency.
He did not bow to the king. Not right away, at least.
Obama's bent-waist handshake with King Abdullah caused one of the great furors of his first year as president.
Republicans ran a political ad about the bow in 2009; the White House press secretary unconvincingly denied it happened; and Trump was one of many who cited it years later as a symbol of Obama's weakness — “he begs and pleads and bows.”
Understandable, then, that Trump's firm, vertical handshake when he greeted the Saudi king's successor was seen by many as “a lesson in American exceptionalism.”
But then, later that day: was that a …?
A bow? Surely not, some insisted, after watching Trump bend his knees, slump forward and bob his head to let King Salman place the honorary collar of Saudi Arabia's founder around his neck.
He's just “bending over,” one supporter suggested.
The White House did not immediately respond when asked if Trump had softened his position on bowing, after criticizing Obama about it on more than one occasion.
Whatever he was doing with the king, Trump appears to have left his Washington troubles only to walk into the same quagmire of diplomatic body language as so many presidents past.
It's not clear why, exactly, Obama's gesture to the king — “It wasn't a bow. He grasped his hand with two hands, and he's taller,” an anonymous aide insisted to Politico in 2009. — caused him so much trouble.
But Obama's alleged bow, less than three months into his presidency, constituted a “shocking display of fealty to a foreign potentate” to some as the Washington Times put it.
When it was followed by a deep bow to the Japanese emperor, Obama endured years of mockery in which his every head tilt risked being called prostration, with sneering headlines catalogued by the Atlantic: Obama bows to the mayor of Tampa; Obama bows to a robot.
“American presidents do not bow before foreign dignitaries, whether they are princes, kings, or emperors,” the Weekly Standard chided.
Trump sure wouldn't, at least, as he made clear on Twitter several times before his presidential campaign.
And during it.
Many observers could not resist a superficial comparison to the past when he began his foreign tour.
“Trump shakes hands with Saudi leader, doesn't bow as Obama appeared to do,” as Fox News put it.
“How Trump just greeted Saudi Arabia’s king is remarkably different than how Obama did in 2009,” the Blaze remarked, noting that Trump shook the king's hand (though Obama has done that too) and his wife did not wear a hijab (neither did Michelle Obama.)
But on the homepage of the Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat, and the snarky feeds of many Trump critics, focused on a different picture.
And while some insisted Trump's little dip could not compare to his predecessor's manifold acts of humility, one of the president's top political backers made no excuses:
In fact, Trump bowed no more or less than other presidents who have worn the collar of Abdulaziz al-Saud, which the kingdom bestows as an honor on foreign dignitaries.
Trump did it. Obama did it. Bush did it.
And — at the risk of recalling that other great controversy — Russian President Vladmir Putin did it too.
There was no sign any of this was clouding Trump's trip. On the same morning of his upright handshake and maybe-bow, he took part in another long tradition of American officials on trips abroad: