RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — Donald Trump stepped foot on foreign soil for the first time in his beleaguered presidency on Saturday, hoping that a nine-day diplomatic mission will help reverse two weeks of bad headlines and unite allies against terrorism.
Trump arrived at King Khalid International Airport in Riyadh to a red carpet ceremony and a military honor guard dressed in the traditional red-and-white checkered ghutra preferred by the Saudis.
The Saudi king, Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, greeted the presidential plane in the 101-degree heat as a brass band played, cannons boomed, and seven Saudi jets flew overhead trailing red, white and blue smoke.
It was a notable contrast from President Obama’s last visit to the kingdom, in which King Salman delegated the task of greeting the president to a distant nephew, the provincial governor, amid tensions over the Iran nuclear deal.
“I’m very happy to see you,” Salman told Trump. “It’s a great honor,” Trump replied, before the two leaders retired to the airport for a formal tea.
White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus told reporters aboard Air Force One that Trump got very little sleep during the 12-hour, 20-minute overnight flight, reading newspapers and talking to staff.
While Air Force One was in the air, news organizations reported a string of damaging revelations: The New York Times reported that Trump told Russian diplomats that former FBI director James Comey was a “nut job,” and that his firing would ease the pressure on the Russia investigation. The Washington Post reported that a high-ranking White House aide was a “person of interest” in the probe. Later, CNN reported that Russian officials boasted of their influence with former national security adviser Michael Flynn, and that White House lawyers were preparing for impeachment “just in case.”
Trump also used the flight to work on his much-heralded speech to Muslim leaders on Sunday, said White House press secretary Sean Spicer. The White House considers the speech a centerpiece of the visit, an opportunity to rally Arab allies in the battle against the Islamic state.
According to a draft of that speech obtained by The Associated Press, Trump will abandon some of the harsher anti-Muslim rhetoric of the political campaign, describing the war against terrorism as a “battle between good and evil” but “not a battle between different faiths, different sects or different civilizations.”
White House deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the draft was just one of five different versions of the speech being written by various aides, and that the president hadn’t decided on a final version.
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