President Donald Trump arrived in Riyadh Saturday morning, the first stop on his inaugural foreign trip as he seeks to escape the controversy engulfing his administration.
The president landed at 9:42 a.m. (1:42 a.m. New York time) and was greeted by King Salman as he exited Air Force One. Jets flew overhead and left a trail of red, white and blue smoke as the the two walked down a red carpet and into the airport terminal. Trump is slated to hold meetings with the Saudi monarch ahead of a Sunday conference with leaders from across the Arab world.
He was also greeted with more damaging headlines back home.
The New York Times reported shortly after Air Force One departed that Trump had bragged about firing FBI Director James Comey to two Russian diplomats in an Oval Office meeting, calling Comey a “nut job” and saying that his removal had relieved pressure from the Russia investigation. The Washington Post reported at about the same time that law enforcement officials had identified a senior White House adviser close to the president as a person of interest in the investigation of Russian meddling in the 2016 election. The Post report didn’t identify the adviser.
Also Friday, the Senate Intelligence Committee announced that Comey had agreed to testify in open session, ending more than a week of speculation about whether he would appear publicly to make his case since he was fired by Trump on May 9.
After Saudi Arabia, Trump plans stops in Israel and at the Vatican — where he’ll meet Pope Francis — before joining a NATO summit in Brussels to confer with top allies, including the newly elected French President Emmanuel Macron. He’ll conclude with the annual Group of Seven meeting in Sicily. The trip will be a fast-paced, high-stakes whirlwind of diplomacy, all conducted under the shadow of the deepening political crisis back home.
Trump again denied there was any collusion between him or his campaign and the Russian government at a news conference on Thursday. Earlier this week, the Department of Justice announced it was appointing former FBI Director Robert Mueller as a special counsel charged with leading the federal investigation.
Trump also denied asking Comey to drop the Flynn investigation. “No. No. Next question,” he said at the news conference.
That move followed the president’s surprise firing of FBI Director James Comey earlier this month, and his acknowledgment that frustration with the ongoing Russia investigation factored into his decision. The controversy grew amid revelations Trump disclosed classified material in an Oval Office meeting with the Russian diplomats, and the existence of a memo in which Comey said Trump asked him to drop an inquiry into former national security adviser Michael Flynn.
Trump has repeatedly dismissed the controversy as a “witch hunt.” He now hopes that his eight-day tour in the Middle East and Europe can turn the page politically, offering him a chance to demonstrate his singular brand of deal-making diplomacy. “Great to be in Riyadh,” Trump said on Twitter shortly after arriving.
During the flight to Riyadh, Trump met with staff and was briefed by his team including National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster. He also read newspapers and caught a little sleep, said his chief of staff Reince Priebus.
Trump selected Saudi Arabia for the first leg of his journey after receiving assurances that the kingdom would make significant investments in the U.S., including purchases of hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of military equipment in the next decade and $40 billion from its sovereign wealth fund, a White House official said.
That includes a $6 billion deal for Saudi Arabia to buy four Littoral Combat Ships made by Lockheed Martin Corp.
Saudi officials have told the White House that King Salman will publicly say it’s the responsibility of leaders throughout the Middle East to defeat radical ideology in the region, according to another administration official, who also spoke on condition of anonymity to preview the visit. This official said the White House regards that speech as a significant development that could draw other Arab nations closer to the U.S.
Senior administration officials said they expected major diplomatic efforts such as Trump’s effort to ally the world’s major religions against extremism to help push domestic controversies off the front pages. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told reporters that Trump’s domestic troubles wouldn’t hamper his diplomacy.
“The people in the rest of the world do not have the time to pay attention to what’s happening domestically here,” Tillerson said.