US President Donald Trump speaks during the Arabic Islamic American Summit at the King Abdulaziz Conference Center in Riyadh on May 21, 2017.
There was a fair amount of interest in Donald Trump’s speech in Riyadh yesterday, with the American president addressing dozens of Muslim leaders from the region. The ambiguity surrounding the purpose of the remarks only heightened the curiosity: what exactly would Trump – with a record of hostility towards Islam in general and Saudi Arabia in specific – do with this platform?
As it turns out, not a whole lot. The Republican’s speech in Saudi Arabia, by any fair measure, turned out to be pretty conventional, which inadvertently told us something important about Trump.
The speech during the initial stop of the president’s first foreign trip was a stark contrast to his previous comments on Islam. As a candidate, Trump frequently criticized the religion, saying, “I think Islam hates us” and “there’s a tremendous hatred there.”
In Riyadh, Trump said, “This is not a battle between different faiths, different sects, or different civilizations. This is a battle between barbaric criminals who seek to obliterate human life, and decent people of all religions who seek to protect it.”
Perhaps the most provocative portion of the speech came when Trump strayed from the prepared text: he was supposed to reference “confronting the crisis of Islamist extremism,” but he instead said “confronting the crisis of Islamic extremism.” A senior administration official said soon after that the slip was not deliberate, but rather, was the result of the president being “exhausted” on his first full day abroad.
Regardless, the story here is less about a conventional speech and more about the fact that Trump retreated from his previous postures. Remember, Trump rose to prominence in Republican presidential politics by attacking Islam relentlessly, including his call for a notorious Muslim ban, which his White House tried and failed to implement a few months ago.
His rebukes against Saudi Arabia in particular have been nearly as plentiful. In 2012, Trump falsely accused Saudi Arabia of conspiring with Barack Obama to lower gas prices and making illegal campaign contributions. More recently, he argued that Saudis “want women as slaves and to kill gays.” Trump also insisted over and over and over again that he wanted to change U.S. policy so that Saudi Arabia pays us more for national security aid.
Over the weekend, all of these arguments evaporated. Trump hailed Saudi Arabia’s security work, backed away from his anti-Islam positions, and even vowed to “help our Saudi friends to get a good deal from our great American defense companies.”
Think about that: the American president went from demanding that Saudis pay us more to offering to help Saudis pay us less.
What we have, in other words, is the latest in a series of examples of Donald Trump talking tough and thumping his chest, right up until it’s put-up-or-shut-up time, at which point he backs down.
Trump promised to label China a currency manipulator, only to retreat when he spoke to China’s Xi Jinping. Trump threatened the NATO alliance, only to back off when he met with NATO Secretary General Stoltenberg, Trump clashed with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, until it was time to see Turnbull in person.
There were even hints along these lines during the campaign, as was evident when Trump met with Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto, with whom the Republican refrained from repeating any of the anti-Mexican rhetoric that was a staple of his 2016 message.
These aren’t flip-flops, exactly. They’re examples of Trump failing to take his own posturing seriously. For all of his rhetoric about “toughness” and “strength,” the president is only too pleased to retreat when forced to confront those he’s admonished.
My point is not that I would’ve preferred Trump be consistent and treat his Saudi hosts obnoxiously, bragging about the virtues of his Muslim ban and repeating his contention that “Islam hates us.” It’d be far better if American leaders were more responsible, before and after Election Day.
What matters, however, is the classic pattern of Trump as a bully who surrenders when it matters. That sends an important signal to the world about exactly what kind of leader he is.