Donald Trump’s Malarial Fever Trip
When Donald Trump departed on his maiden overseas trip, it was impossible to resist the comparison with the last time a president got out of town to escape such a vortex of scandals: the summer of 1974, when Richard Nixon jetted to the Middle East and Moscow just weeks before Watergate consumed him. Reflecting back on that time, Nixon’s Secretary of State Henry Kissinger memorably described the Washington mood as “malarial,” with each day bringing a new twist in the president’s fate. “The fever chart would rise and the patient would approach delirium for a few days,” Kissinger recalled. “Suddenly the fever would break, leaving no trace save the increased weakness of the victim.”
So in his week away from Washington’s delirium, how did Trump do? My overall impression of the trip is like that of Trump’s casinos: all glitz and gaud on the outside, but deeply flawed within.
In the Middle East, Trump got the symbolism he craves: he basked in the glow of gold, enjoyed the pomp and circumstance, got some good photo ops (although with the “magic orb” shot, also a truly bizarre one), and mostly said the right things. He kept his tweeting in check — although one wonders whether that was intentional or simply because of the time change and the fact that he had little time for cable news — and committed only a few gaffes. He generally steered clear of the drama he left behind, the only exception being his unsolicited denial that he told the Russian foreign minister that Israel was the source of the sensitive intelligence about the Islamic State laptop plot, which simply confirmed the story.
Looking past the spectacle, the substance of the Middle East stops showed a remarkable degree of continuity. His Saudi visit built on President Barack Obama’s efforts to have regular leader summits with Arab partners (starting in Camp David in 2015 and Riyadh last year), with the same themes: doing more together to fight terrorism, standing up to Iran, and providing Gulf partners with military capabilities. Despite all the hoopla about arms deals, many of them had in fact been inked under Obama — but the Saudis never followed up — and the new agreements were similar to what Hillary Clinton would have cut had she been elected. The most consequential difference, of course, was Trump’s silence on democratic values and human rights.