Royal treatment for Trump in Riyadh amid turmoil at home

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May 20, 2017 23:45

President to land at Ben-Gurion on Monday • Saudi minister discusses regional peace

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Trump signs $110 billion Saudi arms deal (credit: REUTERS)

Trump signs $110 billion Saudi arms deal (credit: REUTERS)

WASHINGTON – Donald Trump set foot on foreign soil for the first time as president on Saturday in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, where King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud greeted him on the tarmac himself.

Air Force One forecast Riyadh’s weather as “windy with blowing dust” ahead of the president’s departure. But Trump flew out from under a much darker storm in Washington, where an investigation into links between Russia and his 2016 campaign team continues to threaten his presidency.

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At times appearing distracted, Trump spent several hours on his first day abroad walking through ceremonial tributes to the US-Saudi relationship.

He met personally with Salman, Crown Prince Mohamed bin Nayef and Deputy Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman and signed a landmark defense deal valued at $110 billion, which the president says will offload US military commitments in the region.

The package provides Riyadh with new border security, maritime and counterterrorism capabilities, air force modernization technology and an anti-ballistic missile defense system meant to counter Iran’s advancing ballistic missile program.

“The headline equipment is the THAAD, which arguably also serves to defend Israel from Iranian missiles, as well,” Simon Henderson, an expert on Saudi Arabia at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and director of the Institute’s Gulf and Energy Policy Program, told The Jerusalem Post. “A Saudi THAAD would be launched when an Iranian missile is spotted early in its flight – before it was clear whether the missile was heading for [Saudi Arabia] or Israel.”

The Saudi government offered unusual visibility into Trump’s visit, carefully orchestrating a live television broadcast of the day’s events – a first for the kingdom. When former president Barack Obama last visited Riyadh, he was greeted at the airport by the local governor and few images of the trip were authorized for publication.

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Saudi Foreign Minister Abdel al-Jubeir spoke with the press after a full day of meetings. Breaking from tradition, Jubeir referenced Israel as an existent entity and expressed hope that Israelis could soon make peace with Palestinians and the wider Arab world.

“The Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques expressed the Kingdom’s optimism that President Trump, with a new approach and determination, can bring a conclusion to this long conflict,” said Jubeir. “He certainly has the vision, and we believe he has the strength and the decisiveness, and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia stands prepared to work with the United States in order to bring about peace between Israelis and Palestinians and Israelis and Arabs.”

After Riyadh, Jubeir noted, “The president will go to Israel and will go to the Vatican where he will essentially address the Jewish world and the Christian world and try to bring together the three major monotheistic religions in the world into a partnership so that we move from any discussion of a conflict of civilizations and move towards a discussion of a partnership of civilizations.”

Both governments hinted at an effort to bring the Arab world in alliance with the Jewish state over the common threat of Iran.

“A robust, integrated regional security architecture is critical to our cooperation,” the statement read.

“The United States of America and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia intend to expand engagement with other countries in the region over the coming years and to identify new areas of cooperation.”

The White House hopes this trip – which includes stops in Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Rome, Brussels and Sicily – will present Trump as a commander- in-chief in control of his foreign policy and image. But a flood of news developments at home shook the administration shortly after the president departed, revolving around Trump’s efforts to obstruct the FBI’s ongoing Russia probe.

The New York Times published transcript excerpts of the president’s May 10 meeting with Russian officials in the Oval Office in which he admits firing former FBI director James Comey to relieve “great pressure” on him from the bureau’s Russia inquiry.

The Washington Post reported that a current senior White House official is a person of interest in the ongoing investigation.

CNN found that US intelligence officials intercepted communications among Russian officials bragging that they had infiltrated Trump’s orbit – and that White House lawyers have begun researching the impeachment process. McClatchy, meanwhile, reported that Justice Department officials acknowledged to members of Congress that the probe is investigating the possibility of a White House cover-up.

“I just fired the head of the FBI. He was crazy, a real nut job,” Trump told Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, and ambassador to the US, Sergey Kislyak, according to the Times. “I faced great pressure because of Russia.That’s taken off.”

Recent revelations could lead to charges against the president of obstruction of justice – a criminal and impeachable offense. The US deputy attorney-general, Rod Rosenstein, appointed a special counsel last week to take over the Russia inquiry. That prosecutor, Robert Mueller, will have subpoena power and the ability to file charges.

In July, the FBI opened an investigation into whether or not Russian officials and Trump associates colluded over the course of the 2016 presidential campaign. Trump denies any collusion took place.

Leadership at the bureau says it only opens investigations of this kind when there has been “a credible allegation of wrongdoing or reasonable basis to believe that an American may be acting as an agent of a foreign power.”

At the moment, Trump has no plans to hold a press conference over the course of his nine-day trip abroad.

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