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.
GREAT AGAIN: Unlike Obama, Trump doesn't bow... https://t.co/AWPOYf0pNv
— DRUDGE REPORT (@DRUDGE_REPORT) May 20, 2017
Trump greeted by Saudi in most elaborate welcome in their history.
Obama was forced to bow in mud room entrance pic.twitter.com/fwzpdVOn6F
— john reilly (@travlr009) May 20, 2017
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.”
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 30, 2012
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 …?
Remember when conservatives slammed Obama for bowing in front of the Saudi king?
— BuzzFeed News (@BuzzFeedNews) May 20, 2017
TRUMP BOWS the top photo in Saudi and other Arab newspapers. pic.twitter.com/yGSAdbMPIM
— Joe Scarborough (@JoeNBC) May 21, 2017
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.
— Mike G. (@RealMike1457) May 20, 2017
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.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 20, 2012
And during it.
"@flanny1971: @realDonaldTrump clearly puts this country first! Security, vets, economy and won't bow down to other world leaders!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 24, 2015
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.
The Trump Motto: "Will bow for gold." pic.twitter.com/qkIkmeRn61
— Eric Schmeltzer (@JustSchmeltzer) May 20, 2017
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:
— Roger Stone (@RogerJStoneJr) May 20, 2017
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.
US Presidential Checklist:
1 Go to Kingdom
2 Bow to King
3 Get Medal pic.twitter.com/7altIujtP6
— ian bremmer (@ianbremmer) May 20, 2017
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: