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Before DVRs, TiVo, or view on demand, if you were devoted to a soap opera but had to miss a week or two of your favorite program, you could hire someone to watch the installments and write up the plot lines. In a similar vein, I am assuming that you may not have been able to catch all of the video feed from the Trump reality show, filmed last week across the Middle East and Europe. Hence, and free of charge, I am offering my services as a watcher of political soap opera, with the hope of bringing you up-to-date on the episodes that you might have missed over the long Memorial Day weekend. —M.S.
The One About the Trip
By the time Donald gets on Air Force One, he’s practically homeless. Mar-a-Lago is closed. His deferential Asian presidential friends, who never ask mean questions and played terrible golf, are back in Tokyo and Beijing.
Nor can he go home to New York, where Melania may have changed the locks on all fifty-eight floors at the Tower. And the White House feels like it has been taken over by Branch Davidians, all of whom want to impeach Donald for reasons he cannot now remember. (Something to do with the Russians.) Maybe Saudi Arabia isn’t such a bad idea after all?
Blame Jared for coming up with the trip to the desert kingdom. All he wants to do is take his father-in-law to Israel, show him the Temple Mount (a terrific spot for Trump Jerusalem?), and maybe make some progress on subdividing, even further, the West Bank.
But Jared cannot simply drag Donald off to the Wailing Wall straight away, so he comes up with the idea of a mega-deal: $110 billion for the House of Saud, so that it can buy weapons from American suppliers, which ought to win a few votes at Boeing next time around.
The One with the Saudi King
Instead of treating Donald as he treated them during the election, the Saudis and their king roll out most of the royal family and then, on the ride to the royal palace, surround the presidential limousine with an escort of what looks like T.E. Lawrence’s cavalry.
Donald and King Salman set up a receiving line in front of the palace, and much of the inner royal family and the Saudi army general staff can be seen going through the line, which has the appearance of two fathers-in-law greeting the guests at a shotgun wedding.
Then, mysteriously, Americans start coming through the receiving line, and there are pictures of Trump formally shaking hands with this daughter Ivanka, son-in-law Jared, T-Rex, Breitbart Bannon, and even primetime’s Sean Spicer who clearly has missed the service entrance.
Donald, the king, and their entourages enter a vast palace reception room. It is set up with a huge circle of wingback chairs, in which the delegates to the Muslim conference, all wearing Arab robes, are seated. It has the air of an Arab book club, if not a session of Islamic group therapy.
Ivanka and Donald are given places of prominence; less so Jared and Melania, although she’s pretty good about walking six paces behind her husband. The king and Donald make small talk through an interpreter.
Later, when telling the Israelis about his new Saudi friend, Donald will brag about how well he got to know King Salman, although on screen they look like two guys awkwardly sitting next to each other in a Dubai airport lounge.
The One about the Terrorists
For entertainment the king takes Donald to something called the Global Center for Combating Extremist Ideology, which is a cross between a National Security Agency suburban mall and a Sri Lankan call center.
Trump gets there in a golf cart. Imagine Donald’s disappointment when he figures out they are not going to play eighteen but to some IT presentation on how to beat terrorism with social media.
As part of the dedication, Trump and all the Arab leaders—they have the look of a bowling team hanging around a mall Starbucks—are told how the Saudi will track down terrorists in their chat rooms and strangle dissent with even cooler apps.
Above them is a screen the size of that in Dr. Strangelove. This time, instead of the bad guys being Ruskies, they are Iranians—unless of course, the House of Saud is planning to tap the texts of local dissidents, which might explain why the Global Center has thousands of analysts seated behind rows of computer screens.
The episode closes with Donald’s speech to the Muslim leader conference (no one is listening; they just want to know if Jared’s check has cleared) and a banquet which includes Donald and some of his entourage doing a traditional sword ceremony, although on screen Tillerson, Donald, and some of the others (because the camera angles and lighting are bad) look like they are line-dancing with the Klan.
The One at the Airport
I have left out of this summary all the coming and goings at the airports, which have a sameness about them.
Think of a carpet as long as the Red Sea. Assume a military band and other ceremonial troops. Throw in the Trumps waving from the door of Air Force One, and some obedient politician at the bottom of the staircase, waiting to greet them or see them off. Duplicate in Riyadh, Tel Aviv, Rome, and Brussels.
The only exception to the welcome ceremony comes in Tel Aviv, where Bebe (played by veteran soap opera actor Benjamin Netanyahu) practically pushes the runway stairs up to the door of the Air Force One, so eager is he to welcome the president onto Israeli soil.
At the Tel Aviv airport, there is also the operatic flight of the helicopter bumblebees, which take the Trumps to Jerusalem.
Not only is Marine One in the swarming formation, but there are also several decoys, and a helicopter escort worthy of the China Beach scene in Apocalypse Now (Allah don’t surf!).
The One in Jerusalem
All presidential visits to Jerusalem feel like reruns. There are the wreath-laying ceremonies, denunciations of the holocaust and terror, kind (if empty) words for the cause of the Palestinians, talk of security “for all,” and remembrances that Jesus died for the sins of, well, at least Michael Flynn.
At one of the meetings , however, it is Donald who proves that he is the one suffering from daytime TV amnesia. He tells the roomful of Israeli officials that he and his team have “just come back from the Middle East,” as though this is a gathering at the bar of one of his New Jersey golf clubs.
He also seems to have forgotten, by the time he gets to Jerusalem, that he and Jared have given the Saudis a $110 billion gift certificate to buy advanced weaponry from American catalogues, and that much of this hardware may be pointed at his “good friends” in Israel.
Because the president is tired from his traveling, there are only a few excursions, including one to the Wailing Wall, where Donald gropes some ancient stones and perhaps leaves his business card, and another to the church where Jesus died, in what might be investigated as a “terror-related” incident.
Donald goes to Bethlehem in his helicopter (I guess the road from Jerusalem isn’t as safe as Bebe implies), but he skips the church of the nativity.
Instead he meets with Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas, who reads out his grievances in a deadpan voice, as if testifying in front of a regional committee meeting of the UN Human Rights Council.
None of the Americans is listening to the kindly old gentlemen talk about the splendors of Arabic Jerusalem, and there is some humorous confusion when no one in the U.S. delegation has $10 to give him for his efforts.
The One about the Dresses
By this point in the tour, the only subject of conversation is the dresses of Melania and Ivanka, each of whom has a new outfit (some with veils, many without) for every stop.
They have dresses for the Holocaust Memorial, and dresses for the day trip over to the Palestinians, much the way in Saudi Arabia they changed every few hours, depending on the state occasion.
Think of diplomacy as a costume party or Ralph Lauren as the Secretary of State. Think of the possibilities for product placement if you are Ivanka Trump (the dress company and the daughter of the same name).
Except in Bethlehem, where Donald and his family hire Mahmoud Abbas to be their guide, the omnipresent Bebe manages to photo-bomb nearly every stop on the Trumps’ vacation.
Speaking at the farewell party, Bebe is thrilled that his wife Sarah and Donald’s wife Melania have become best friends, and he reminisces about Donald from the old days together (nightclubbing?) in New York City. I am a little surprised that no one thought to trot out a Lawrence Welk band for the tearful farewell.
Bebe is too happy with his friends’ visit to take notice that the U.S. embassy has yet to move to Jerusalem, that his pal Donald made nice in Arabia to General el-Sisi, the Egyptian president, or that Jared brokered a deal to give the treacherous Saudis those store credits worth $110 billion. Maybe the sequel will need a few more laugh tracks?
The One with the Pope
Clearly it isn’t Donald’s idea to call on the Pope in Vatican City, a neighborhood of Rome. By this point he probably would have headed home or at least to a golf course on the southern coast of Spain. Instead, the presidential masked ball is marching solemnly through the corridors of the Vatican.
Unlike the old Saudi king, Pope Francis isn’t waiting for Donald at the airport or even at the front door of the Apostolic Palace.
Instead a dour Italian welcoming committee is waiting for the Americans in the courtyard—complete with ceremonial Swiss guards carrying pikes—and they lead the Trumps to the Pope’s office, although it looks as though they are being put under house arrest during the Thirty Years’ War.
An amiable prelate walks beside Trump, who has the bored look of an American tourist, going through one more church on his Italian holiday with a chatty guide.
Melania gets a little lost in the procession, perhaps because she is hidden behind a designer veil. Ivanka’s outfit and veil make her look like Eva Perón.
So reluctant is Francis (a Jesuit who will never bless a casino opening) to greet Donald that the pope has his door closed when the Americans arrive at the inner sanctum.
Nor does it spring open at the last minute. A courtier has to knock, and then the door only opens slightly, as if this is the entrance to a speakeasy and inside the pope is bottling altar wine.
Finally Donald is granted his audience, although the Pope is sitting behind a spare desk, like a loan officer at Dime Savings going through Trump’s financials.
The president leans across the desk, expectantly, as if he is pointing out that Trump Vatican City would be “truly, a first class project,” something that the pontiff would come to see “as beautiful and inspiring,” despite the gold TRUMP sign that will have to go up over the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica.
Although the Pope blesses some holy water for Melania and allows some Americans in the delegation to kiss his ring, all Francis has for Donald is a few leaflets on climate change—if not some other inspirational tracts, perhaps on how to deflect questions about sexual molestation (“Only God Touches Us All…”).
During the photo ops, Jared and Ivanka stand around in their official capacity as America’s Ken and Barbie—a position that does not require Senate confirmation.
Sadly for Jared, the pope seems uninterested in concluding an arms deal or granting him a papal indulgence.
The One with the Belgians
Everyone on Air Force One is relieved to touch down in Brussels and be done with all those cereal-box monarchs and medieval faith healers.
Jared and Ivanka didn’t make the flight. They chose to have a date night (with his defense lawyers?) in Rome and to fly back to Washington. Presumably Melania can handle the outfits for the Belgian king and the NATO conference.
Admittedly, Belgium isn’t much of a country—you can thank Napoleon for that—so their airport arrival team has the look of landlocked synchronized swimmers: a few ceremonial rifles, some old colonel of the regiment (go figure, he looks like a Gurkha), and a ten-piece sidewalk band.
In the lingering spirit of a Saudi monarch, Prince Donald al-Trump is locked away in the presidential limo while Melania is still on the tarmac, searching for the car. Her agent will hear about that, when it comes time to renew her personal services contract with Trump Inc.
Melania looks every bit a European aristocrat later that day when she and Donald are presented at the royal palace to Belgium’s King Philippe and Queen Mathilde (their last name is Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, but you don’t see it on the mailbox).
Long gone is the PLO house dress that Melania wore around Saudi Arabia and those somber numbers for holocaust remembrance. Now she is wearing one of those checked dresses that grace the country pages of Paris Match and Hello Magazine.
His Majesty The King of the Belgians and his wife seem like nice people who run a first-class palace (for a minute I worry that Trump might ask for a menu).
Clearly, Donald is happiest in the consoling company of monarchs, who don’t kowtow to pesky constituents and never ask questions about Russian phishing.
Philippe and Mathilde are direct descendants of King Leopold, who worked to death or displaced millions of Congolese at the end of the nineteenth century. But this isn’t a PBS documentary but more a Chevy Chase rom-com about a family vacation in Europe, and the Congo holocaust is never mentioned. Besides, Melania’s black dresses are on the plane.
The One with the Cabinet
For some reason, a funny thing happens on the way to the NATO forum, and team Trump end up in bilateral talks with the Belgian cabinet.
There on one side of the table is a group of frumpy Belgians in office with Prime Minister Charles Michel—judging by their suits, a few might be undertakers—while across from them sits Trump, Rex Tillerson, and other fellow travelers, who appear frantic to remember one issue of Belgian politics (besides those school girls held captive in cellars, by Belgians who looked like Roger Ailes).
Had it been a game show—So You Think You Know Something About Belgium?—no American minister would have come away with the velour lounge suite.
The next morning, Donald arrives at 10 a.m. at the office of the European Council, which has been built to resemble a mammoth disco ball. Council President Donald Tusk, who has been in the news for his indifference to British demands over Brexit, greets the car at the front door, but stands back just far enough so that Trump does not hand him his raincoat.
Trump walks around the premises, as if wondering where to put the lobby bar.
The One with the French
Trump spends the morning with the EU counsellors—the same ones he ridiculed during the election—and then meets newly elected French president Emmanuel Macron for lunch at the American residence in Brussels.
Macron walks from his limousine to the front door, where the Trumps are waiting side by side, as if part of the cast of Downton Abbey. It’s a so-called working lunch, so Mrs. Macron, famously 24 years older than her husband, does not join them for the veal and chocolate mousse.
By chance, Donald is 24 years older than Melania, so the couples would have had something in common other than Macron’s recent, weird broadcast to American scientists working in climate change, inviting them to seek asylum in France—a country that, he says, actually believes in their work.
But the French president is not the only person at the lunch with embarrassing video. Trump used to make Pizza Hut commercials, has several pouting cameos on “Sex and the City,” and took down WWE’s Vince McMahon in a live broadcast of professional wrestling.
Inside the embassy Trump greets Macron as if he were a winning apprentice, although if their handshake had gone on much longer, wrestling referees might have been summoned to see if it counted as a full nelson.
The One with NATO
If you are wondering why Europe is broke, take a look at the new NATO headquarters, which cost $1.23 billion and looks like a Luftwaffe lapel pin. Too bad the only enemy in sight is ourselves.
At least the atrium is a useful stage set for the confrontation between Donald Trump and his cohorts among the NATO leadership, who are gathered in a little cluster (school children listening to the angry headmaster?) to hear him denounce Europe as a confederation of skinflints.
The strained relations began during the U.S. presidential election, when Trump decided NATO is a dead letter, of no use in a world divided between the Russians and the Americans. Besides, who can rely on the Czechs or the Lithuanians when Western interests are under threat from terror?
Donald has also latched on to the line that NATO needs to pay “its fair share,” which is a reprise of the Ronald Reagan attack on the United Nations, the implication being that only the United States stands between civilization and its discontents.
The One about the Speech
By the time Donald ascends the makeshift podium in what feels like a greenhouse, to read NATO the riot act, no one is in a good mood and everyone would rather be elsewhere.
Who needs a lecture from the Americans (just here for the afternoon), even if they did pay 22 percent of this Wehrmacht command center?
Macron has already gotten the special treatment from his presidential lunch. Merkel is fresh from her Berlin campaign appearance with the visitation of St. Obama.
And Theresa May has gotten her boost in the polls by blaming American intelligence for leaking sensitive photographs of the Manchester bombing, which sounds better than saying to the British public during an election: “We missed it.”
Trump delivers his speech with what sounds like third-grade reading comprehension. Plus in trying to keep an eye on his prey, he tilts his neck at an odd angle, which suggests he got to Brussels after sleeping poorly on an overnight bus from Rome. His only facial expression is a scowl.
For Trump the memorable passage of the speech comes when the Luxembourg prime minister, Xavier Bettel, whispers something in French to Macron, along the grade-school lines of, “C’est qui ce connard?” It prompts giggling among the Francophones (who might in the future fear their report cards from the Trump administration).
For the class picture Trump is caught on camera shoving aside the prime minister of Montenegro, so that Donald can preen in the front row.
And to think this is the same crowd with whom he has signed up for the G7 package tour of Taormina.
It’s a week into the trip but we are finally seeing the real Trump off his presidential leash.
The One in Sicily
Only at a summit organized in Italy do the leaders of the free world have to walk to the conference and wait outside the front door, as if the restaurant has yet to clear their table.
The G7 (it used to be the G8 and include the Russians, but their membership was revoked) is having their meeting in Sicily, in the resort town of Taormina, which has the ruins of an ancient Greek theater overlooking Mount Etna (for the moment, the second most volcanic mass on the island).
The leaders first assemble for a group picture on a podium overlooking the volcano, although it means trudging up and down a long ramp, most of which Trump navigates on his own, as if he missed the bus from the cruise ship.
To get from the Greek theater to the summit, the leaders walk through the old town, but such is the scrum of photographers and aides that it feels like the running of the Pamplona bulls.
Trump, however, is driven to the conference palace on a stretch golf cart—although the sun glasses and running boards of his secret service detail, at least on Sicily, give it the air of a getaway car.
Angela Merkel and the others are walking. While British Prime Minister Theresa May is wearing a sober business suit, Angela has on a loud blue jacket and white slacks, the worst of East German cruise wear.
The One with the G7
Waiting for the table to free up, Canadian male model Justin Trudeau sports the personality of Miss Congeniality and is chatting easily with the others while Trump walks around with a deadpan expression, as if consigned to a real estate convention on underground parking. He moves among the leaders—back slapping and whispering knowing asides—although most tense up when he gets too close.
Surrounded by dozens of aides, photographers, conference organizers, translators, bodyguards, and technicians, the actual meeting of the G7 has the feel of a lunch table in a crowded pizzeria.
Only for Merkel does this look like a business trip; for the others, including the jejune Macron with his hipster cutaway collar, it’s an end-of-term school picnic. She’s on the hook for Greek solvency, a million Syrian refugees, and the Brexit terms.
Because it is useful for asserting leadership—at least if packaged correctly in reelection campaigns—terrorism is one of the few agreed items on the agenda. It enables Trump to pound the table about “radical Islam,” and for the other leaders to appear empathetic about the Manchester bombing.
You might hear that the other issues on the summit table are North Korea, climate change, refugees, Syria, and trade, but these are campaign bumper stickers, targeted for domestic consumption. Besides, China ain’t here.
How can the world’s problems be settled in a three hour meeting, part of which is taken up with lunch and sharing the pain of Trump’s golf stories? (He has already complained to the Belgians about how hard it is in the EU to open a club.)
Besides, everyone has to head back to the hotel and dress for tonight’s concert, and not everyone has the same $51,000 flower-bomb jacket that Melania wore sightseeing today in Catania.
The One about Global Warming
Day two of the Taormina summit includes a few African nations (Ethiopia, Kenya, Nigeria, and Tunisia, as if selected randomly in a lottery) and several international organizations, including the heads of the United Nations and the International Monetary Fund.
The meeting is held at a table that resembles the outlines of a hot tub. Who said the G7 isn’t reaching out to Trump?
The leaders of the G7 are hoping that the American president will pledge his support for the Paris Agreement on climate change, something Trump has hinted he might cancel, at least as it concerns American compliance.
He says he will let them know next week, which in New York real estate is how you say: “Over my dead body.”
Trump is unusual among political figures in that he wants other leaders to like him personally; he likes telling the others how great they are and how much he values their friendship.
His body language is an endless series of “power elbows” and golf-foursome claps on the back, but with his policy pronouncements, which come before and after the formal sessions, he runs them into the ground.
Trump is forever buttonholing Angela Merkel with important asides at the meetings, but then says, out of nowhere: “The Germans are bad, very bad. Look at the millions of cars they’re selling in the U.S. We will stop that.”
According to a Trump sidewalk poll, Fifth Avenue in New York has way too many Mercedes-Benz.
The One with the Flag
Trump ends his trip at an American naval base on Sicily, speaking in front of a large flag, so it feels like a remake of Patton (Nixon’s favorite movie, by the way). Melania is the warm-up band.
Trump is telling the gathered sailors that the great existential threat to the western world is the “sinister forces of terrorism.”
His speech is a cross between a Sunday school film strip (this is a battle between “good and evil”) and a remix of Reagan’s greatest hits, with allusions to how the “bad guys” and “losers” need to be driven off this earth, and evocations of god’s faith in the American dream.
Trump recites the achievements from his travels, how in nine days and across four countries he has managed to isolate Iran, convince Araby to work toward eradicating terrorism, get Israeli’s consent toward a lasting peace, and establish the economic framework for eternal prosperity (“I think we hit a home run”).
As at summer camp he’s made a lot of great new friends, and with them he’s done a lot of great deals.
Nor since the treaties of Westphalia, Vienna, Paris, Berlin, or Versailles has the world been remade so completely in nine days along the catwalks of the Middle East and Europe.
Maybe with a few more outfits Melania and Ivanka can wipe out world hunger?
Unspoken at Naval Air Station Sigonella is that fact that Trump’s idea of an economic stimulus is to recycle billions of dollars in military aid for the Saudis into hundreds of thousands of “beautiful” paying jobs for Americans, who might just prefer the cash.
In Trumpworld, peace is a coefficient of military expenditure. The more money NATO, the Saudis or Israel spend on their militaries, the safer the world will be. “We’re gonna have a lot strength,” he tells the cheering sailors and marines, “and a lot of peace.”
The One with Jared
The president tells the naval air station that it can start partying the moment “the wheels are up” on Air Force One and he’s on his way back to Washington, D.C. to deliver all that frankincense and myrrh from “the holy lands” (his metaphor of the Middle East) to the American people.
He’ll tell all those dreary bureaucrats in the State Department that he’s made a breakthrough on peace between Israel and the Palestinians, gotten the Arabs to buy into the idea of defeating terrorism and radical Islam (even though many bankrolling ISIS have passed through his receiving lines), and straightened out all the issues dividing Europe and NATO.
Now if they are any good at their jobs, the civil servants will follow up on his many great successes, and break ground on the new world order. If they drop the ball, T-Rex can walk the plank, for failing to understand that foreign affairs are no harder than Florida condo development.
Alas, during the Trumps’ spring vacation, Washington has been thinking less about the brave new world of Middle East peace and more about the cold wars with Russia, and whether Trump and his campaign colluded with any spies coming in from the cold with Hillary’s emails.
The city’s only growth industry involves the hiring of special prosecutors.
It’s a Washington story, older than the Bible and with more back-stabbing than Dallas, and will make for some great TV, once the Jared hearings start to roll. Stay tuned.