Trump left for his first presidential foreign trip Friday
His first stop was in Saudi Arabia
A month after Donald Trump called for a “total and complete shutdown” of Muslims entering the US, a hijab-wearing American named Rose Hamid stood up in the grandstands a few rows behind the presidential candidate.
It was January 2016, a few weeks before Republican primary voters began to cast their votes. As Hamid stood up in silent protest, the supporters around her began to jeer and chant for her to “get out,” until Trump campaign officials and police officers interceded to eject her from the arena. One person accused her of having a bomb.
“There is hatred against us that is unbelievable,” Trump said as Hamid was ejected. “It’s their hatred, it’s not our hatred.”
Now, after receiving a king’s welcome in Saudi Arabia on Saturday and ambling from meeting to meeting with the region’s Muslim leaders on Sunday, he appears to be looking to reset relations with the Muslim world.
Trump chose Saudi Arabia – home to the world’s two holiest Muslim sites – for his first overseas trip, in what his top aides have described as an overtly symbolic gesture.
The commander in chief uttered a total of 26 words in public during the first day of his maiden foreign voyage. The entirety of his public remarks, made ahead of a meeting with the Saudi crown prince, could have fit in a single tweet.
Instead, Trump let the pictures do the talking, and he almost certainly liked what they were saying.
On Sunday, he will deliver a speech to leaders of 50 Muslim countries to outline his vision for US-Muslim relations.
But beneath the pageantry and symbolism remains the sting that more than a billion Muslims around the world felt after American voters elected Trump – a candidate who called for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims” entering the United States, floated the idea of surveilling US mosques and warned that Muslim refugees represented a national security threat.
Change the image
Senior administration officials have offered no indication that Trump intends to apologize for or walk back the campaign rhetoric and proposals that experts say have fueled anti-Muslim sentiment in the US.
Trump and his aides do, however, want to change that image as Trump looks to make headway on the true goal of his trip to Saudi Arabia: eradicating the threat that ISIS and other Islamist terrorist groups pose to the United States.
“We thought that was very important (to start the trip in Saudi Arabia) because obviously people have tried to portray the President in a certain way,” a senior White House official said. “We thought that was a good place to start. And, look, I mean, one of the biggest problems that we face in the world today is radical extremism, and we have to combat that.”
H.R. McMaster, the President’s national security adviser, said the speech will be “inspiring, yet direct speech on the need to confront radical ideology and his hopes for a peaceful vision of Islam to dominate across the world.”
A US official said the words “radical Islamic terror” aren’t included in the current draft of Trump’s speech set to be delivered in Saudi Arabia on Sunday. The speech, however, is not in its final form and could change before Trump delivers his remarks.
The US official confirmed to CNN the speech will urge Muslim leaders to “drive out the terrorists from your places of worship” and cast the fight against radicalism as a battle of “good and evil.”
The Saudi foreign minister Adel Al-Jubeir on Saturday signaled his country was hopeful Trump would truly hit the reset button.
“If we can change the conversation in the Islamic world from enmity toward the US to partnership with the US, and if we can change the conversation in the US and in the West from enmity toward the Islamic world to one of partnership, we will have truly changed our world and truly drowned the voices of extremism, and drained the swamps from which extremism and terrorism emanates,” Jubeir said, echoing a phrase once used by Trump on the campaign trail.
Trump has looked to ramp up the US’ fight against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, but has done so while stressing the need for Muslim allies in the region to increase their efforts as well, emphasizing that point in White House meetings with leaders of 50 countries in the region. Trump has called on Arab countries in the region to accept more Syrian refugees and sought their help to create safe zones in Syria, among other appeals.
But his speech on Sunday will amount to his first public pitch on the issue and his first public appeal for Muslims around the world to view him as a partner – and not an enemy.
“The one thing he absolutely needs to say is the United States is not anti-Muslim and is not pursuing a war against Islam,” said Robert Ford, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute and former US ambassador to Syria.
To do so, he will need to make a clean break with the rhetoric of his campaign that too often blurred the lines between Islam at large and “radical Islam” – like when he said he believed “Islam hates us” in a CNN interview in March 2016.
Beyond his Muslim ban proposal and call to surveil US mosques, Trump also said he was open to creating a database of Muslims in the US – none of which he has disavowed.
But Trump’s outreach to the Muslim world comes as he is pursuing a policy that many have labeled as inherently anti-Muslim. As Trump speaks in Saudi Arabia, his administration is continuing to fight in court to reinstate the travel ban targeting seven Muslim-majority countries that Trump hoisted as a key component of his counterterrorism efforts.
“You cannot reconcile it. Period,” said Nihad Awad, the executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations who stood beside President George W. Bush after the attacks of 9/11. “The Muslim world is watching what this administration is doing and so far, it is not very reassuring.”
Awad said it is still possible for Trump to succeed in his outreach, but stressed that his campaign rhetoric will “not easily be erased” by one speech.
“Actual genuine policy shifts may do it. Other than that, it would be a futile effort,” Awad said. “If using this anti-Muslim, anti-minority rhetoric has given him support to win the White House, to win the world he will need a different message and a different mindset.”
Comparisons to Obama
Trump will be the second consecutive US president to address US-Muslim relations from a Muslim country in his first speech abroad.
Quoting the Koran and calling attention to Islam’s contributions to the world, President Barack Obama in 2009 addressed thousands of young students at Cairo University in Egypt in an attempt to turn the page on the policies of his predecessor that saw tens of thousands of US troops deployed to Muslim countries.
“I have come here to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world – one based upon mutual interest and mutual respect, and one based upon the truth that America and Islam are not exclusive, and need not be in competition,” Obama said in Cairo.
But Obama’s presidency did not herald a sea change in US policy in the Middle East and the sharp increase in drone strikes that he oversaw also exacerbated antagonism toward the US in the region in some respects.
Trump will not stand before students and young activists as he takes his turn at improving US-Muslim relations. Instead, Trump will speak with the mostly autocratic cohort of leaders who represent more than a billion Muslims – some of whom do so with hefty opposition and protest.
Those leaders are likely more willing – even eager – to accept Trump and forget his caustic campaign rhetoric.
Saudi officials told reporters ahead of the trip that they have been heartily encourage by the Trump administration’s like-minded anti-Iran posture – a break from the Obama administration efforts of outreach to Iran. It’s a sentiment shared by Sunni-majority countries in the Gulf and throughout the Middle East.
And many of those countries are also welcoming Trump’s lack of public statements condemning rampant human rights violations in their countries, with Trump officials saying that Trump instead prefers to raise those issues privately.
“We’re not going to lecture anyone,” a senior White House official said ahead of Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia.
But Trump will need to remember that his audience is not just the two dozen leaders who will hear his words and congratulate him on his speech so long as his policies in the region continue along the same track. The millions of Muslims who live in those countries – some of whom have been rocked by the wave of protests that began with the Arab spring – will be listening too.
“While we need these Arab governments and Muslim governments as our allies, we also need to send a message to the people in these Muslim countries that we support their rights,” said Radwan Masmoudi, president of the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy. “Values of human rights, equality and freedom of choice … these are universal values. They’re not American or Muslim values.”
Muslim-Americans will be listening, too – a community that has seen little to no outreach on Trump’s part since he took office amid a slew of concerns in that community.
Awad, the CAIR director, recalled how President George W. Bush took to the Islamic Center in Washington after the 9/11 attacks to declare that the US was not at war with Islam. Awad was at his side.
“I wish that President Trump would take a page from that legacy, the legacy of President Bush reaching out in critical and tough times to the most vulnerable community,” Awad said.
CNN’s Kevin Liptak contributed to this report.