JERUSALEM – For four straight days, President Donald Trump did not live-tweet the cable shows. He didn’t mention his unlikely electoral win. And in visits to two countries where he was greeted with great fanfare, he never once complained about being treated unfairly.
Trump’s relatively successful swing through the Middle East was due to the fact that, for the most part, he didn’t get in his own way. It was also the result of months of careful planning. A decision was made early on to visit a part of the world where Trump is venerated and feared, and to pack his schedule so that he mostly stayed on message and, according to one aide, “didn’t have time to tweet.”
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But a key factor was the role played by Dina Powell, H.R. McMaster and Jared Kushner, who brought a combination of government experience and understanding that Trump wanted to get some negotiated wins on the board.
Kushner has been in talks with the Saudis about a possible visit since the early days of the transition. And he has bonded with Saudi deputy crown prince Mohammed bin Salman—like Kushner, close kin of the leader of his country—hosting him for dinner at his home in Washington last March. The courtesy was returned on Sunday night, when Kushner and Ivanka Trump joined the prince for a private dinner at his home in Riyadh, according to a White House official.
He has also depended on deputy national security adviser for strategy Powell – an Egyptian-born fluent Arabic speaker who served in the George W. Bush administration and comes with important contacts in the Arab world – to help spearhead the visit.
The trip served as something of a public capstone to Powell’s quick rise in a White House she joined as a domestic economic adviser primarily focused on helping Ivanka Trump navigate the role she wanted to play on women’s issues. Now she serves in a dual role.
“A normal White House would have a larger cohort of experienced people, so Dina’s own experience means she’s more valuable – and more influential,” noted one former government official with ties to the Trump administration. Powell has been quietly elevated on the National Security Council for months, but her growing power was on full public display in the Middle East.
At Trump’s bilateral meeting with King Salman at the Royal Court in Riyadh, Powell was notably the only woman at the table, where she did not cover her hair and wore a knee-length black dress that left her legs exposed – something of a statement in the deeply conservative country where local women are forced to dress in abayas that cover them from head to toe.
Powell, according to an administration official, was also instrumental in helping to craft the language Trump used in his Sunday speech on Islam, with a particular interest in his use of language about women’s rights.
She was one of a smaller cadre of top aides who stayed on with Trump on Air Force One en route to Israel – chief of staff Reince Priebus, strategist Steve Bannon, and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross all dropped off the trip after Saudi Arabia. There, she accompanied Trump to bilateral meetings with Netanyahu and Abbas, as well as the president’s visit to the Western Wall.
Powell and McMaster coordinated with the Defense Department to firm up the $110 billion U.S.-Saudi weapons deal in time for Trump to announce it over the weekend. Powell traveled with Defense Secretary James Mattis to Saudi Arabia last month, a piece of the prep for Trump’s visit, and along with Mattis represented the United States in a meeting with the King.
Powell and McMaster together led the National Security Council’s interagency process for planning the trip, according to a White House official. That included weekly trip planning meetings over the past the last two months with Kushner, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, CIA Director Mike Pompeo, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Joseph Dunford and Energy Secretary Rick Perry.
On a separate track, Joe Hagin, the White House deputy chief of staff for operations and a veteran planner who like Powell worked under Bush, was responsible for coordinating the logistics of the trip.
It all lead to a relatively flawless performance for a White House that isn’t used to such a thing.
With the exception of one classic, Trumpian, self-wounding reference to the scandals swirling back at home – he volunteered, in Jerusalem, that he never specifically told Russian officials it was Israeli intelligence he shared with them in the Oval Office – Trump mostly managed to stay on script.
In Saudi Arabia and Israel, the White House wanted to pivot away from the Russia-related investigations that await them at home. Instead, aides wanted to focus on a piece of the job Trump believes is his forte: forging personal relationships with foreign leaders, and rebranding American foreign policy from the Obama era in a part of the world most eager for a change.
“Love your shoes. Boy, those shoes, man,” Trump told Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi during a bilateral meeting at the palatial Ritz Hotel in Riyadh on Sunday. It was a bonding moment with an authoritarian leader Obama never invited to visit the White House.
In Israel, Trump called Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who clashed with Obama, by his nickname, “Bibi,” called him a friend, and talked endlessly of how “beautifully” he was treated by Saudi Arabian King Salman, who came to the airport to greet Trump in Riyadh – a courtesy he never extended to his predecessor.
That the Trump team – which has blundered its biggest domestic policy rollouts, crippled itself with internal staff fights, and buried itself under an escalating Russia-related probe – pulled off a trip to the Middle East that many former Obama officials predicted would be far too ambitious for a novice team, was acknowledged even by its biggest detractors.
“The trip so far has gone as well as they could have desired,” said Democratic strategist Anita Dunn, a former top adviser to President Barack Obama. “The visuals have been good, by and large, and he looks presidential.”
On Tuesday evening, Trump flew to Rome, beginning the European half of a nine-day, five-country tour that is really two trips combined into one. The second half of the trip is expected to be a heavier lift for the president: On the back end are the two international conferences where Trump won’t be the center of attention. At the NATO conference in Brussels and the G7 in Sicily, Trump will be surrounded by European leaders – and possible protesters – skeptical of his closeness with Russia, his “America First” ideology, and consumed by the Manchester terror attack that have rocked the United Kingdom.
That portion of the trip has also not been tightly managed by Kushner, Powell and McMaster, who handled the first piece of the trip as a stand-alone project, overseeing everything from the schedule, to the speeches, to the spin.
“The president asked us to plan a trip that would help unite the world against intolerance and terrorism and we have made great progress towards that goal in Saudi Arabia,” Kushner said in a rare, on-the-record statement earlier this week, a signal of his deep investment in the project.
Trump’s aides on Monday night said they were pleased with the trip, but they were also eager to keep the focus on the president. At the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, one aide vented that Trump gets blamed when things go wrong, but his aides receive all of the credit when things actually go right.
The first half of Trump’s foreign junket was not totally free from Trump’s own signature gaffes.
“So amazing!” he wrote in the book of remembrance at Yad Vashem, the somber Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem. In his first bilateral meeting in Jerusalem, he noted that he “just got back from the Middle East." And in Riyadh, he was bailed out by his daughter, Ivanka, who filled in for him when he apparently was too tired to make remarks at the “Tweeps 2017” social media conference in Riyadh.
His staffers and family members were also responsible for some novice mistakes. A press release identified Mahmoud Abbas as the president of Palestine, instead of president of the Palestinian Authority. And the moment when First Lady Melania Trump appeared to bat away her husband’s extended hand at the welcome ceremony in Israel became an instant viral sensation – feeding the narrative of perceived strain between the couple.
But overall, those moments did not change the positive takeaways of the trip – captured best, perhaps, by the image of an uncharacteristically contemplative Trump, a yarmulke covering his famous mane, praying silently at the Western Wall. The Wall, notably, is not an architectural structure that would typically rate in Trump’s book.
“The Western Wall is not inherently impressive physically, it’s not the largest wall, it’s not the most ornate,” noted Nathan Diament, executive director of public policy for the Orthodox Union. “A visitor has to be mindful and contemplate the place in order to find it inspiring. The photos conveyed a solemn and reflective President Trump.”