Let’s give it up for President Trump: He hasn’t blown up the world yet on his first overseas trip.
If you think that is damning with faint praise, consider that the president, whose policies and campaign rhetoric no one would categorize as terribly Islam-friendly, managed to give a major speech on Islam in Saudi Arabia to not completely catastrophic reviews.
Okay, so I’m damning with faint praise a little bit. Blake Hounshell captured the hole in the middle of the speech in Politico:
Parts of the speech could have been given by either of Trump’s predecessors — respectful language about religion, the observation that Muslims have suffered the most from terrorism, the patronizing evocation of past civilizational glories, like the pyramids. What was missing, though, was any sense of why Trump thinks terrorism is on the rise, and how he plans to combat it.
It was as if, as former Bush administration official Elliott Abrams put it, the terrorists were aliens from outer space, rather than the twisted product of broken societies that have yet to divine how to stop churning them out. “He offered no explanation of what was producing this phenomenon,” Abrams noted in an email to my colleague Annie Karni. “Trump had no theory, and therefore could not suggest what might be done to prevent more extremists from rising.”
Graeme Wood was even more scathing in the Atlantic: “The speech was nonetheless divisive. But the intolerance it preached was the intolerance sanctioned by Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states: anti-Shiism, with frankly sectarian overtones.”
Here’s the thing, though: There are three excellent reasons to believe that the Saudi Arabia leg, with the speech and the arms deal and the Glowing Orb of Destiny, is the highlight of Trump’s first overseas trip.
Reason one is Trump himself. Even before he left, there were reports that he wanted to cut the trip short. Loren Schulman warned last week that these kinds of trips are exhausting for staff and presidents alike. That holds with particular force for a president who doesn’t like to sleep away from his places of residence. Trump reportedly canceled an appearance at a forum hosted by Fox News Channel’s Bret Baier, sending his daughter Ivanka in his stead. The Associated Press’s Julie Pace and Jonathan Lemire noted that Trump flubbed one of his lines in his prepared remarks because, according to a White House official, the president is “an exhausted guy.”
This is day two of the trip, and he’s about to do more flying. He’s only going to get crankier and more error-prone from here:
Meanwhile his Cabinet is starting to lose what minimal competencies it possessed:
The second reason is that Trump is exiting his more comfortable world of authoritarian rulers and now must cope with the politicians of advanced industrialized democracies. It is possible that this has not dawned on some of Trump’s policy principals just yet:
These countries are not going to shower him with shiny gold medals, sword dances or glowing orbs. For example, Haaretz’s Barak Ravid reports that Benjamin Netanyahu’s cabinet is not necessarily thrilled to pull out all the stops to please Trump:
During a Sunday meeting of coalition heads, Netanyahu was notified that there would be a sparse attendance of ministers at the reception and that most party heads wouldn’t participate in it. Netanyahu was furious and blew up the meeting, a senior official who attended the meeting said. Immediately afterwards, the Prime Minister’s Bureau issued an instruction to all government ministers according to which they must participate in the airport reception.
Bear in mind that Netanyahu has a very strong incentive for Trump’s visit to go smoothly.
The third reason that this trip will be going downhill is that the officials Trump meets at the NATO and G-7 summits will be less beholden to protect him. I am willing to bet that by that point of the trip, Trump will do or say something obnoxious behind closed doors that will be leaked almost immediately. To be sure, some allies are making accommodations for Trump’s shortcomings, and some heads of state will not have an incentive to spill the beans. Nonetheless, some staffers in the room will be ready to pounce on any mistake Trump makes.
These are probabilities, of course. It is possible that as Trump gets over his jet lag, he will build up the stamina needed to gut out this trip. But it is not terribly likely.