RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — Against the backdrop of an ornate, Mar-a-Lago style ballroom with members of the Saudi royal family sitting nearby, President Donald Trump on Sunday delivered a moderate speech on Islam designed to reset his relationship with the Muslim world.
Trump emphasized a war against terrorism around the globe, and not between religions, saying that the fight “means honestly confronting the crisis of Islamic extremism and the Islamists, and Islamic terror of all kinds.” He notably steered clear of the loaded term “radical Islamic terrorism,” which he has used in the past.
“We are not here to lecture — we are not here to tell other people how to live, what to do, who to be, or how to worship,” Trump said in a 33-minute speech free of unprompted asides, which also did not depart from traditional American Middle East foreign policy.
“Instead,” he said in his first major foreign policy address since taking office, “we are here to offer partnership — based on shared interests and values.”
The Middle East, he said, “should not be a place where refugees flee, but to which newcomers flock.” He framed the global fight against terrorism as a “battle between good and evil,” including on the positive side of the ledger, “decent people” of all religious backgrounds fighting together against “barbaric criminals.”
In substance, Trump’s decree against terrorism did not differ greatly from President Barack Obama’s first big speech on Islam, which he delivered in Cairo in 2009, where he also called for peace in the Middle East. The starkest difference was in optics: Obama spoke in front of a crowd of activists, students and government officials, while the visual of Trump was a man seated next to the king of Saudi Arabia.
But Trump, who was speaking at a meeting that included 55 leaders of the Muslim world inside the opulent King Abdulaziz International Conference Center, framed his audience as a strength of his speech.
“We in this room are the leaders of our people,” he said. “They look to us for answers. When we look back at their faces, behind every pair of eyes is a soul that yearns for justice and for peace.”
In the days leading up to Trump’s high-stakes speech, his advisers said he was working through five different drafts of the speech, a process overseen primarily by his chief policy adviser and speechwriter Stephen Miller — also the architect of Trump’s Muslim ban.
But in the end, national security adviser H.R. McMaster finally won an ideological battle in the White House. It is McMaster who had been trying — and failing — to delete from the president’s vocabulary the term “radical Islamic terrorism.”
McMaster has reportedly called the phrase “counterproductive” because terrorists are “un-Islamic.” But in his first address in front of a joint session of Congress in February, Trump used the phrase anyway, saying that the administration was “taking strong measures to protect our nation from radical Islamic terrorism.”
On his trip to Riyadh, Trump was accompanied by Miller, as well as McMaster and his deputy, Dina Powell, who have played starring roles on the Saudi piece of the trip.
Miller has been more out of the spotlight here, since the White House delegation arrived on Saturday. But on Sunday, he was spotted at the Ritz Hotel, dressed casually in a polo shirt a few hours ahead of Trump’s speech. In the end, he appeared to be overruled by the more moderate voices in the administration.
Administration officials were eager to downplay any tension between its different ideological wings. “The president wrote the speech,” said his communications adviser Hope Hicks, when pressed on which aides were responsible for the new rhetoric on Islam.
In the speech, Trump veered off of the prepared remarks when referring to “confronting the crisis of Islamic extremism.” Prepared remarks used the words “Islamist extremism.” A senior White House official told reporters after the speech that it wasn’t on purpose. The official said it was simply due to Trump being “an exhausted guy” by the middle of his second day on the road.
Trump’s speech bought him some distance from the divisive, anti-Muslim rhetoric he employed to appeal to voters in the Rust Belt during the campaign.
“There’s something going on,” he said in November 2015, when asked whether Islam was an inherently peaceful or inherently violent religion. “I don’t know that that question can be answered. … We are not loved by many Muslims.”
At another point, he said, pointedly: “Islam hates us.”
At a late-night briefing with reporters, a senior administration official pushed back on the idea that anything about Trump’s rhetoric had softened. “I would argue he toughened,” the official said, noting that Trump spoke truth to power to Muslim leaders by urging them to accept responsibility for destruction caused by terrorism — and choose a more hopeful future for themselves by driving out terrorists.
But the question of his credibility remained — on two fronts. Would the Muslim world he was addressing take his new tone at face value and forget years of inflammatory comments about Islam? And would the Trump base, which ate up the old version, stand by the president’s more moderate words?
His longtime political strategist, Roger Stone, who helped Trump frame his candidacy to appeal to his white, working-class base, hinted that the latter could be a problem.
“While I certainly still support the President, I fear he has become captive of the neocons he has surrounded himself with,” Stone said in an email. “Dina Habib Powell? Why? Did she even vote for Trump? If the people had wanted a continuation of the George W. Bush administration they would have voted for Jeb.”
Powell, a former senior official in the Bush administration, is an Egyptian-born, fluent Arabic speaker, and has served as a key adviser on Trump’s trip to the Middle East.
But the pivot, and the input from new aides who joined the administration post-campaign, was a gamble Trump and his West Wing aides were willing to take.
“Drive them out,” was Trump’s refrain on Sunday, referring to terrorists — not to the refugees he has sought to keep out of the country, or to his Muslim ban.
His speech included a promise to allies in the Middle East that appeared to explain that his “America first” ideology does not mean America alone. “America is prepared to stand with you — in pursuit of shared interests and common security,” he said.
He castigated the Iranian regime for speaking “openly of mass murder, the destruction of Israel.”
“Until the Iranian regime is willing to be a partner for peace, all nations must work together to isolate, deny it” funding for terrorism, Trump said.
Despite the more moderate language, the speech still included some of the dark imagery that has colored Trump’s biggest oratorical moments, like his “American carnage” inaugural address. “If you choose the path of terror, your life will be empty, your life will be brief,” he said, “and your soul will be fully condemned.”