RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — Anyone talking about Russia?
Not here in this oil-rich desert kingdom, where Saudi authorities orchestrated with ebullience just about every move in their playbook to fete President Trump as if he were a monarch of their own.
This was just the getaway the weary president and his wearier staff ordered up.
For 48 hours in Saudi Arabia, before Trump departed Monday morning, the president and his team were able to hide from the scandal that is escalating back home in Washington and threatening to engulf the new administration.
Absent so far on Trump’s marathon tour — “my big foreign trip,” as he described it on Twitter last week — has been what the president calls “that Russia thing.”
There was no talk of the FBI’s investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election and possible collusion with the Trump campaign. Nor of the president’s Oval Office slip of highly classified information to Russian diplomats.
Nobody wanted to get into the messy subject of Trump’s abrupt firing of the FBI director, and certainly not the appointment of a special counsel to oversee an intensifying probe that now has a senior White House adviser in its sights.
Instead, Trump basked in the opulence before him — as well as in the gushing coverage in Saudi media, which ballyhooed his speech on extremism as historic, heralded his investment deals and celebrated the “classy” fashion choices of his wife, Melania.
Although cartoons mocking Trump circulated on social media here, the headline of Monday’s front-page editorial in Arab News, the kingdom’s leading English-language newspaper, delivered the official verdict on the president’s visit: “Two thumbs up, Mr. Trump!”
Fake news this was not, at least in the minds of Trump and his loyal aides — some of whom joked about how much easier their jobs would be if the U.S. media were similarly inclined to limit coverage of the government to happy talk.
The Saudi royals and the kingdom they command gave Trump the adulation and respect he had been craving at home. Addressing U.S. reporters, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir even parroted one of Trump’s go-to-phrases, saying the president had the potential to “drain the swamps from which extremism and terrorism emanates.”
“He certainly has the vision, and we believe he has the strength and decisiveness” to bring peace to the Middle East, Jubeir said.
Trump’s efforts at peacemaking took their toll, however, as a senior White House official acknowledged at a news conference Sunday night that the president — even one who attacked opponents for not having enough stamina — had grown tired.
“He’s just an exhausted guy,” said the official, who briefed reporters only on the condition of anonymity.
The next morning, aboard Air Force One for the flight to Tel Aviv from Riyadh, reporters asked Secretary of State Rex Tillerson whether the president was fatigued.
“He’s doing better than I am,” Tillerson said. “And he’s got a few years on me.”
After two days of holding court in palaces and diplomatic rooms ornamented in gold and crystal, each seemingly grander than the last, and with enough fresh flowers arrayed to decorate a royal wedding or two, Trump told aides that he was awe-struck by his surroundings. The president welcomed the opportunity to be seen in new settings on television and in photographs.
A man who prides himself on featuring the biggest, the brightest and the best at his own properties was captivated by the Saudi display of riches.
“I have always heard about the splendor of your country and the kindness of your citizens, but words do not do justice to the grandeur of this remarkable place and the incredible hospitality you have shown us from the moment we arrived,” Trump said Sunday at a summit of Muslim leaders convened by Saudi King Salman.
Hope Hicks, the White House director of strategic communications and one of Trump’s closest aides, said Trump has been in a good mood and “feels a great sense of pride.”
“He was just very pleased with everything,” Hicks said. “It was definitely a spectacle, but there was also a lot of substance to it.”
Hicks is part of a full retinue of West Wing staff accompanying the president on his nine-day, carefully choreographed trek through the Middle East and Europe.
Few aides wanted to stay behind in Washington, especially when the president is contemplating a broad staff shake-up. Rather, many of them have been trailing the president from dawn to dusk — in part to make sure the script does not change in their absence, and in part to have a hand in what they hope will be a successful trip.
Chief of Staff Reince Priebus has no particular expertise in foreign affairs, and his job is to run the government, yet he appeared at many a photo opportunity in Riyadh. Together with chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon and National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn, he grooved to the beat of feathered drums at an evening sword dance performed in Trump’s honor outside a Saudi palace.
White House press secretary Sean Spicer, who may or may not be struggling to keep his starring role at the daily press briefings back in Washington, was photographed striding confidently across a tarmac sporting sunglasses and carrying a briefcase and a chestnut leather duffel.
In Trump World, everybody is always looking over his or her shoulder. But bitter rivals at the White House found common cause abroad, commingling in the tight confines of Air Force One, the presidential motorcade and diplomatic meeting rooms.
Even the nationalists and globalists gave the appearances of a cease-fire. During one of Trump’s meetings with Salman, Bannon took a seat next to Cohn and Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser with whom Bannon has feuded.
Trump is traveling with practically a battalion of press staffers: Spicer; Hicks; Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the deputy press secretary and Spicer’s on-camera substitute; Michael Anton, the National Security Council spokesman; Joshua Raffel, who handles communications for Kushner and his Office of American Innovation; and Stephanie Grisham, communications director for the first lady.
But rather than working out of the press filing center, where they could have answered questions and spun stories, the press aides stayed mostly inside Trump’s bubble or at his hotel, inaccessible to reporters save for two scheduled briefings but ever-present to serve the boss.
One of the central truths about survival in Trump’s orbit is that power stems from proximity to the principal.
Top officials in previous White Houses said it was unusual for so much of Trump’s senior staff to leave the country at once. The few senior aides who stayed behind include White House counsel Don McGahn, counselor to the president Kellyanne Conway and communications director Michael Dubke.
“The Trump delegation is so large it’s not clear who will be in the White House dealing with the multiple and multiplying crises swirling around the presidency,” said Dan Pfeiffer, who was a senior adviser to President Barack Obama and traveled on many of his overseas trips.
“They will tell you everyone has a phone so they can be reached, but it doesn’t work that way because of the time change,” he added. “And presidential foreign trips are so busy that there is no time to do anything other than what is directly in front of you.”
Priebus and Bannon, as well as Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, peeled off in Riyadh and were scheduled to return to Washington, while others in Trump’s delegation continued on to Israel, where they arrived Monday.
Trump was not the only American to indulge in Saudi Arabia. So did his aides.
A host of them personally met the king during an elaborate Royal Court ceremony featuring music from bagpipers. Among them was Dan Scavino, the golf caddy-turned-social media guru who helps the president man his Twitter account, which has been curiously silent.
Kushner was received like a crown prince all weekend, and even his personal aide, Avi Berkowitz, got to sample the kingdom’s hospitality. During a ceremonial meeting of Trump and Salman, Berkowitz and most others in the president’s entourage sat intermingled with Saudi officials in plush blue armchairs, sipping coffee with cardamom.