There are two ways to look at the fact that President Trump is leaving Friday for a nine-day trip to five countries. The good news for him is that he will get away from a siege atmosphere in Washington, in which guesswork about when his key legislative goals might be accomplished is rapidly being replaced by talk of obstruction of justice and even impeachment. Richard Nixon, after all, decamped on an overseas trip featuring American flag–waving crowds at the depths of the Watergate scandal. The bad news is that if Trump’s amazing propensity for verbal indiscipline strikes again, it could have diplomatic repercussions.
Then, when considering odds of that latter outcome, keep in mind that Trump will be making a speech on Islam in Saudi Arabia, before an audience of representatives of more than 50 Muslim countries.
Yes, that’s right: The president, a man who has espoused openly Islamophobic views and is known for his less-than-subtle thinking and speaking, will go to the birthplace of the religion, as a guest of a regime whose entire legitimacy derives from its role as the guardian of Islam’s Holy Places, and presume to lecture Muslims on their obligation to fight “radical Islam.”
What could possibly go wrong?
Before answering, one should be aware of another fact about this speech: It is reportedly being written by Senior Policy Adviser Stephen Miller, who has a record of Muslim-baiting as long as your arm. He is the close White House ally of former Breitbart executive Stephen Bannon and former Breitbart writer Julia Hahn, two people who appear to believe Muslim refugees are an existential threat to America. Miller did not let his lack of legal training get in the way of drafting the Trump travel-ban order that caused horrific chaos before being stopped by the courts. His own casual words identifying the travel ban with Trump’s call for an unconstitutional “Muslim ban” during the campaign became a central part of the rationale for said judicial intervention.
Perhaps there are wiser advisers looking over Miller’s shoulder and keeping him constantly aware of the extreme sensitivity of Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabi Muslims toward pronouncements on Islam by infidels, even the most well-intentioned, and tutoring him on the intricacies of intra-Muslim affairs, and the constant risk of blundering into deadly insults that would take decades to erase. Maybe Trump will stay close to a cautious shift, and avoid setting back U.S.-Middle Eastern relations decisively. But this is the Trump White House we are talking about, where even the most basic guidelines are often ignored for reasons ranging from understaffing to byzantine rivalries to paranoia.
Trump is already, according to Politico, in danger of blundering into what it calls a “Saudi Game of Thrones” between two princely aspirants to the succession of aging King Salman. Tossing pronouncements on religion into that tinderbox could be a very bad idea.
Isn’t there a domestic-policy issue (supposedly his specialty) Miller should be attending to? Or perhaps a pro-Trump rally where he could be shouting and cavorting and whipping up the crowds like he did during the campaign? Trump should stay a thousand miles away from pontificating on Islam, and Miller a thousand miles beyond that.
This piece was originally published by New York Magazine.