When President Gerald Ford was descending off the gangway of Air Force 1 at the start of his visit to Austria in 1975, his knee buckled and he tumbled unceremoniously onto the tarmac. In a speech that he gave during a visit to Poland in 1977, Jimmy Carter’s bungling translator said that Carter would like to “to get to know the Poles carnally” and that he has left America “with no intention to return.” On a visit to Brazil in 1982, Ronald Reagan toasted its president and “the proud people of Bolivia.” In Tokyo in 1992, George Bush threw up directly onto his host, the prime minister of Japan. At a G-8 Summit in 2006, George W. Bush startled Angela Merkel when he started to massage her shoulders without any prior warning. And in 2011, at a G-20 summit, a microphone picked up French President Sarkozy telling Obama “I cannot bear Netanyahu, he’s a liar, “and Obama replying “You’re fed up with him, but I have to deal with him even more often than you.”
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So Donald Trump can rest assured that if he commits a faux pas on his first trip overseas, which began on Saturday with a spectacular reception in Riyadh, he certainly won’t be the first or the last president to do so. Trump’s problem, however, is that he doesn’t have too much room to maneuver. Another embarrassing mistake, another offensive remark, another self-defeating reaction to the semi-automatic barrage of scandals that hits him and his White House day in and day out, and Trump could reach the tipping point that could turn the prospect of his impeachment from wild speculation to a reasonable possibility.
Even as he was flying to Saudi Arabia, the blows never stopped coming. His advisers said Trump hadn’t slept much, and for good reason. First came the news of how he had badmouthed ousted FBI director James Comey as a “nut job” in his meeting with Russians; then, that a senior figure in the White House, who is particularly close to Trump, was a “person of interest” in the FBI investigation of the ties between Trump’s campaign and the Kremlin. The two leading candidates for the dishonorable mention were Trump’s senior adviser Steve Bannon and his son-in-law Jared Kushner. Trump could probably absorb losing Bannon, but if Kushner, the father of his grandchildren, is embroiled in a criminal investigation, Trump could blow his top.
But far more threatening for Trump, at least in the short term, is the announcement that Comey would be testifying publicly before the Senate Intelligence Committee. Comey’s testimony is sure to become the greatest blockbuster show on earth, as well as a mortal danger to Trump’s presidency. Notwithstanding the complaints against Comey on both sides of the political aisle for his handling of the Hillary Clinton email investigation, he still commands immeasurably more respect on Capitol Hill and among the public than does Trump. Comey will come to the intelligence committee as the underdog who has been wronged and, though he won’t admit it, revenge will be his first priority.
The princely welcome given to Trump in Riyadh on Saturday, which seemed borrowed from the sets of Aladdin or Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, won’t improve Trump’s situation. The fact that King Salman gave Trump the Collar of Abdelaziz Saud – named for the founder of modern Saudi Arabia, who gave his oil fields to American companies that made both sides fabulously rich – won’t win him too many points either. In fact, the historical associations of a citation of honor named after Saud adorning a U.S. president’s neck should raise unpleasant historical associations, especially for Jews. In the historic meeting between Franklin Roosevelt and King Saud that took place on the Grand Bitter Lake south of the Suez Canal in February 1945, which launched the Saudi-American alliance, Roosevelt tried and failed to convince Saud to accept Jewish migration to Palestine, especially against the backdrop of the Holocaust. Saud adamantly refused, and seemed to have actually convinced Roosevelt that the situation was far more complex. In five minutes with King Saud I understood the Palestine situation, Roosevelt told Congress in March. By mid-April Roosevelt was dead, in what some might view as divine retribution.
Even the incredible $110 billion arms deal, which is slated to grow to an inconceivable $380 billion Saudi investment within the next decade, is bound to elicit mixed emotions. Yes, it’s a valuable shot in the arm for the American economy and could create thousands of jobs. But Saudi Arabia is one of the least liked countries in the U.S., loathed slightly less than Russia, according to a February 2017 Gallup poll, but significantly more than China or Cuba, which are both far from favorites on the list.
This is the same Saudi Arabia that Trump bluntly accused of masterminding 9/11, of loving to kill gays and enslaving women, the same country that Trump said, after his election, should be banned from exporting any oil to the United States. But this was a few days before the Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman began to court Trump, four months before his meeting in the White House was described as a turning point in relations between the two countries, seven months before Trump was received by the Saudi royal family with pomp, parades, horses and dancing princes. It’s tempting to say that Trump was welcomed as if he was Lawrence of Arabia, were it not for the fact that Lawrence disliked King Saud and said his rule would introduce extremist Wahhabist Islam to the Arabian peninsula. This is the same Islam that Trump said hates America, and therefore requires a travel ban to protect it.
Trump’s Israeli hosts, who are nervously anticipating his arrival on Monday, pointed to the half full part of the glass. After all, Benjamin Netanyahu’s government shared Saudi Arabia’s disdain for Barack Obama, for his kneejerk liberal concern about human rights and especially for the nuclear deal that he signed with Iran. The two capitals were jointly disappointed with the reelection of Iranian President Hassan Rohani over the weekend, because a victory of his hardline line opponent Ibrahim Raisi and his anti-American supporters who oppose the nuclear deal would have made it easier to undermine and ultimately scuttle it. Israel also understands and accepts the need to arm Saudi Arabia to the teeth so it can resist Iranian expansionism and support for terror and, if necessary, meet them head on the battlefield as well. Israel, however, is also probably terrified that Trump, who just gave away Israel’s most sensitive secrets, will be leading the way.
But this is the same Saudi Arabia, you will recall, that Israel fought tooth and nail in an attempt to prevent it from getting AWACS intelligence planes or F-15 fighters, for fear they would ultimately be turned against Israel itself. The same Saudi Arabia that spreads anti-Semitism and fundamentalist extremism, the country that spawned Osama bin Laden. The Saudi Arabia that Netanyahu’s longtime aide and former Foreign Ministry Director General, Dore Gold, labeled a Kingdom of Hate in his 2004 book, describing it as the mother lode of global terror. This is the Saudi Arabia that will now get tanks, planes and anti-missile systems no less sophisticated than Israel’s.
In contemplating what kind of Israeli-Palestinian peace deal Trump will propose, now or in the future, it’s worth remembering that the Saudis now have a half-a-trillion dollar hold on the U.S. president, which means he won’t be quick to cross them. His shifting attitude toward the Saudi kingdom shows that he can change his mind violently literally from one day to the next, and turn his worst enemy into his greatest ally without thinking twice. And that he can do just the opposite as well, as he did with Comey, who morphed from Trump’s hero into a grandstanding nut job, without a blink of the president’s eye. And that Israel could also be tossed overboard from one moment to the next if Trump decides that it will make America great and possibly save his hide.