By Michael A. Memoli / Tribune Washington Bureau
RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — President Donald Trump was greeted with elaborate pomp in Saudi Arabia’s capital Saturday, his first day of a five-country tour that will test his capacity to manage complex international diplomacy while the White House faces a growing political crisis at home.
In choosing the oil-rich kingdom as his first foreign stop since taking office, Trump found a host eager to use all the opulent symbols of state to seek a reboot in relations after the strains of the Obama era.
In a ceremony at the lavish royal court, King Salman presented Trump with the nation’s highest honor, the Collar of Abdulaziz Al Saud, for “his quest to enhance security and peace in the region and the world.”
Hours earlier, Salman personally greeted Trump on a red carpet at the foot of Air Force One before a dramatic flyover of military aircraft honored the visiting president.
When former President Barack Obama last visited, in April 2016, the king famously snubbed him, sending the governor of Riyadh to welcome him on the runway while the king greeted other visitors at the airport.
If the Saudis worried about Trump’s harsh language during the campaign — when he called for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States” — they clearly had forgiven him.
By day’s end, Trump and members of his Cabinet were swaying to the music and chanting of a traditional sword dance as part of an extravagant dinner in his honor at a second royal palace.
The Saudis had objected to Obama almost from the start. They disapproved of him for abandoning Egypt’s leader during the so-called Arab Spring uprisings in 2011, for failing to hold his red line against Syrian President Bashar Assad in 2012, for easing sanctions on Iran as part of the nuclear deal in 2015 and for promoting liberties that many Saudis don’t enjoy.
Trump was accompanied by his daughter Ivanka and first lady Melania Trump. Like many foreign women, neither wore the head scarf that women in Saudi Arabia are legally required to wear in public.
Their failure to do so was notable only because in January 2015, Trump complained on Twitter that Saudis were “insulted” that Michelle Obama appeared here without a head scarf.
Beyond the ceremonies, Trump and the king signed agreements locking in a $110-billion package of arms sales to Saudi Arabia and investments in the U.S. economy.
Parts of the arms-sale agreement were set into motion under the Obama administration, but Trump took credit for the final product.
“That was a tremendous day. Tremendous investments in the United States. Hundreds of billions of dollars of investments into the United States and jobs, jobs, jobs,” he told reporters later.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the arms deal “lowers the demands on our own military, but it also lowers the cost to the American people of providing security in this region.”
The two leaders also issued what they called a “Joint Strategic Vision Declaration” that each side cast as a major step forward in the seven decades of bilateral relations.
Although the White House has struggled at home, Trump’s team has been invested in making his first foreign trip a success since the earliest days of the administration.
Recognizing their inexperience in running a major foreign trip, the White House enlisted several veterans of President George W. Bush’s advance teams, overseen by Trump’s deputy chief of staff, Joe Hagin, also a former Bush official.
Before landing in Riyadh, White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus told reporters on Air Force One that the president spent the flight meeting with staff, reading newspapers and working on a major speech on Islam he is scheduled to deliver Sunday to the Arab Islamic Summit.
The rest of the flight was spent getting very little sleep, Priebus said.
White House officials have alternately been eagerly awaiting the trip and gritting their teeth over its potential pitfalls.
No modern president has attempted such an ambitious debut on the world stage, and Trump’s itinerary — which also includes a two-day visit to Israel, an audience with Pope Francis at the Vatican and participation in NATO and Group of 7 summits in Brussels and Sicily — is being carefully choreographed to present Trump as a confident commander in chief.
But Trump’s May 9 firing of FBI Director James B. Comey set off fast-moving developments that turned questions over Russian meddling in the 2016 election and Moscow’s potential influence with key Trump aides into a full-blown crisis.
It was from aboard Air Force One that White House press secretary Sean Spicer responded to a report in The New York Times that Trump told Russian officials in the Oval Office that his decision to fire Comey — whom he described as “crazy, a real nut job” — had relieved “great pressure” on him over the Russia investigation.
White House officials did not dispute the story, nor a separate Washington Post report that an unnamed senior Trump aide is under federal scrutiny as a person of significant interest to the investigation.
The Saudis’ hospitality spoke to their eagerness to repair relations with Washington. On Sunday, they will host a pair of related summits focused on combating terrorism and preventing radicalization, as well as other perceived threats.
“I think there’s an enormous opportunity in Saudi Arabia to bring the whole Arab world together,” said Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.