Saudis get $110 billion in arms, anti-Iran line, and endorsement of Yemen intervention as Trump gets flattery and diversion from bad headlines
Developments on Day 121 of the Trump Administration:
Trump Gets Warm Saudi Welcome
Seeking an escape from the expanding Trump-Russia investigation and a possible crisis in Washington, Donald Trump enjoys the friendly welcome of hosts in Saudi Arabia.
Looking to get maximum political and economic benefits after their fractious relationship with the Obama Administration, the Saudis laid on ceremonies that played to Trump’s self-confidence. The President was greeted by a long red carpet at the airport, as King Salman — in contrast to the arrangements for Barack Obama — met him and travelled in Trump’s limousine. The king awarded Trump the highest Saudi civilian award, the golden King Abdulaziz al Saud Collar and praised for “his quest to enhance security and peace… in the region and the world”.
The practical side of the trip was led by confirmation of a $110 billion arms sale from Lockheed Martin, a deal begun under the Obama Administration and developed by Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner and Mohammad bin Salman, the Saudi Deputy Crown Prince and Defense Minister. Commenting on the sale, Trump welcomed the boost for “Jobs, Jobs, Jobs” in America.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson also met Saudi expectations with comments that Iran is Trump’s top concern in the region. Left unspoken was the reaffirmed US endorsement of the Saudi military intervention in Yemen’s civil war, which has killed thousands of civilians and fuelled a humanitarian crisis. [Trump did say on Sunday that the US would boost relations with Saudi ally Bahrain, where the monarchy has pursued mass detentions, suppression of demonstrations — killing scores of protesters — and banning of the opposition after mass protests in 2011.]
The US press also saw some lighter moments in the ceremonies causing minor disrupting to the Trump PR line. White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, known for his Islamophobic advocacy, was pictured sitting stone-faced beside the Saudi Minister of Islamic Affairs, and Trump and Cabinet members such as Tillerson and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross shuffled awkwardly as they joined a ceremonial sword dance.
President Trump, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson swayed along with traditional dancers in Saudi Arabia pic.twitter.com/HAf6RroaDe
— Washington Post (@washingtonpost) May 20, 2017
Meanwhile in Washington
The Administration largely succeeded in replacing troublesome headlines for the day, although there were more revelations about the Trump-Russia issue.
Sources told CNN on Saturday that Russian officials bragged, during their intervention in the 2016 US election, that they had cultivated a strong relationship with Trump’s advisor Michael Flynn and believed they could use him to influence the Trump campaign.
US intelligence officials limited the sensitive information they shared with Flynn, who was designated after the election to become National Security Adviser, “current and former government officials” said.
“This was a five-alarm fire from early on,” said one former Obama administration official, “the way the Russians were talking about him.” Another former administration official said Flynn was viewed as a potential national security problem.
The Russian relationship with Flynn was built up during 2015-2016 with payment of more than $55,000 to Flynn’s consulting firm. This included a high-profile trip to Moscow where the future National Security Advisor was seated next to President Vladimir Putin for Russian State broadcaster RT, which paid Flynn for his services.
The conversations picked up by US intelligence officials occurred months before Flynn’s conversations on December 29, 2016 with Russia’s ambassador in Washington, Sergey Kislyak. The calls led Flynn’s departure as National Security Advisor after he misled the FBI over the conversations and, according to Acting Attorney General Sally Yates, left the Administration open to blackmail by Moscow.
Comey to Testify
Trump may also struggle to escape overseas from the news that former FBI Director James Comey, dismissed by the President on May 9, will testify in open session before the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Trump fired Comey to limit the Trump-Russia investigation, but the move has backfired. The Justice Department bypassed the White House to appoint a special counsel, Comey’s predecessor Robert Mueller, who led the bureau from 2001 to 2013. Comey’s associates have fed a series of damaging revelations — based on the FBI Director’s notes — about Trump’s meetings with Comey in late January and February, including the President’s request for a halt of the investigation of Michael Flynn.
On Friday, it was revealed that Trump bragged to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Russian Ambassador Kislyak — still under investigation by the FBI — that he had fired “crazy…nut job” Comey and made the Russian issue disappear.
Essential Reading: Trump’s “12-Second Attention Span”
“People Here Think Trump Is a Laughingstock”
Susan Glasser writes for Politico about shifting European responses to Donald Trump:
“People are less worried than they were six weeks ago, less afraid,” a senior German government official with extensive experience in the United States told me. “Now they see the clownish nature.” Or, as another German said on the sidelines of a meeting here devoted to taking stock of 70 years of U.S.-German relations, “People here think Trump is a laughingstock.”…
When European diplomats meet these days, they often swap stories about Trump — and how to manage their volatile new ally. “The President of the United States has a 12-second attention span,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg told a former senior official in April after meeting Trump in the Oval Office. Not only that, this person told me, the President seemed unprepared and ill-informed, turning the conversation to North Korea and apparently unaware that NATO is not a part of the ongoing North Korea saga. (A NATO spokesman later denied this, saying “the Secretary-General never said this and it does not represent his views.”)….
Some of the reported preparations for the NATO session in Brussels this week suggest just how much the volatile-clown theory of the American president has now taken hold.
NATO has labeled the May 25 session a meeting, not a summit, and will hold only a dinner to minimize the chances of a Trump eruption. Leaders have been told to hold normally windy remarks to just two to four minutes to keep Trump’s attention. (“This is routine,” the NATO spokesperson said.) They are even preparing to consider a “deliverable” to Trump of having NATO officially join the U.S.-led coalition fighting the Islamic State in Syria, as Trump has said his priority is getting NATO to do more in combating terrorism. “It’s a phony deliverable to give to Trump, a Twitter deliverable,” said a former senior U.S. official, pointing out that the individual NATO member states are already members of that coalition.