Trump's nine-day trip began in Saudi Arabia
The President will visit five countries
For someone who is rarely short on words – on Twitter, if nowhere else – President Donald Trump was downright silent Saturday.
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.
The US leader was greeted in elaborate royal fashion here in the Saudi capital, where leaders hoped to woo him with displays of pomp and respect.
It’s a feeling he’s longed for at home, where a swirl of scandal has surrounded his first months in office. Instead of deference, Trump got a special prosecutor and nearly a week of damaging headlines.
If Washington is Trump’s agony, however, Riyadh amounted to his ecstasy, replete with lavish displays of admiration for the new leader.
In Washington, activists project provocative phrases onto the side of the Trump International Hotel (the latest, on Monday, read “Pay Trump Bribes Here”). In Riyadh, government officials project a five-story image of Trump’s face onto the side of his hotel instead.
Red carpets are abundant. Outside the Royal Terminal at the King Khalid airport, workers were busy fluffing the scarlet strip until the moment Trump emerged from Air Force One.
Brass bands played. Coffee was poured. Trump, who for weeks has angrily lashed out at the latest Russia reports, looked content.
The elderly King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, leaning on a cane, made the trip from central Riyadh to greet the plane. He accompanied Trump nearly everywhere, including on the 30-minute drive from the airport, which was lined will billboards featuring both men’s faces.
Trump even offered a thumbs up to reporters, his avowed enemy. The gesture was listed as offensive in an embassy etiquette guide, though an informal poll of Saudis found none who registered it as a big deal.
By the end of the day, any residual angst from a challenging week seemed to melt away. Surrounded by men hoisting swords in a traditional dance ahead of a palace dinner, Trump even began to sway himself. He was joined, enthusiastically, by his 79-year-old commerce secretary, Wilbur Ross.
Even after 10 p.m., Trump was still being ferried through a royal museum in a slow-moving golf cart, the King at his side and his wife, first lady Melania Trump, perched on the back.
The royal welcome was outsized, and appeared to put Trump in his comfort zone. But in some ways it echoed President Barack Obama’s arrival here in 2009, where then-King Abdullah greeted him at the airport and bestowed the same gold medal that was proffered upon Trump on Saturday.
It was largely an unblemished start to Trump’s foreign debut. Gaffe-watchers found small breaches of protocol, but Trump has not caused mass offense – as some had feared – to his hosts.
If the first day proceeded largely without error, however, Trump’s near silence only helped it along. At no point did Trump speak in depth about Saudi-US ties, nor did he take questions from reporters, making a verbal miscue all but impossible.
On Sunday, he’ll have more to say. Trump is due to deliver a major speech to Muslim leaders and participate in a Twitter forum, both spaces fraught with the potential for offense.
At no point on his first foreign trip is Trump scheduled to take questions from reporters, a marked break from past precedent.
Ultimately, Trump’s aides have recognized a basic facet of presidential foreign travel: It’s the images that count.
Almost every deal and every announcement a US leader makes abroad has been pre-baked, hammered out among underlings in the preceding months. Agendas for meetings are discussed in depth before leaders ever sit down at the table. There’s rarely a major surprise.
That means when it comes to selling a president’s success, managing the way his trip looks to the world gains extra importance.
“Gaffes are the biggest worry for any presidential visit,” said Robert Danin, a senior fellow for Middle East studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. “But, absent that, then the images will dominate more than anything.”