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White House Middle East Victory Lap Draws Skepticism

Aides pushing a win, but headaches await return from region

President Donald Trump (L) speaks during a joint statement with Israeli President Reuven Rivlin in Jerusalem on Monday. (Lior Mizrahi/Getty Images)
President Donald Trump (L) speaks during a joint statement with Israeli President Reuven Rivlin in Jerusalem on Monday. (Lior Mizrahi/Getty Images)

The White House is describing President Donald Trump’s first dose of Middle East diplomacy as a “historic” success, but some lawmakers are skeptical that the optimistic rhetoric will become policy, and at least one is looking to block a major announcement from the trip. 

Trump spent all or parts of four days huddling with Muslim and Israeli leaders before heading to Europe on Tuesday afternoon. So confident was the White House that the first leg of Trump’s overseas diplomatic debut had gone well that they did not wait to land in Italy to declare victory.

“The last, I think, four days have been very successful for us,” a senior administration official told reporters on Air Force One after departing Israel for the trip’s European swing.

“The overall objective that we want to accomplish here is really try to find a peaceful way to create a new direction for the Middle East,” the senior official said. “We’re very optimistic that we have the ability to do some very transformative things that will really surprise a lot of people.”

But a centerpiece of Trump’s trip, announcing a weapons deal with Saudi Arabia that could be worth nearly $110 billion, could face a roadblock courtesy of a member of the president’s own party. 

Kentucky Republican Rand Paul said he will use a resolution of disapproval to force the Senate to vote on the proposed deal.

The disapproval resolution would block the arms sale with the Saudis if it were to actually become law, but the burden is exceptionally high because it would have to overcome a Trump veto.

Paul had previously worked with Democrats Christopher S. Murphy of Connecticut and Al Franken of Minnesota, along with Republican Mike Lee of Utah, to force a similar vote under the Arms Control Act of 1976 on a significantly smaller arms sale during the Obama administration.

That sale involved 153 Abrams tanks and other equipment at a cost of more than $1 billion. The measure in the last Congress was tabled (and thus killed) 71-27.

The change in administration has not altered Paul’s views of the arms sales. The law provides an expedited process for floor consideration, and he’s planning to deploy it again, perhaps during the June work period

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Still, White House officials say they laid the groundwork for a potential paradigm shift. As an example, the senior official pointed to a weekend summit in Saudi Arabia, where a list of Arab countries pledged to do more to crack down on financial support for violent extremist groups on their own soil. The official dubbed that “an amazing landmark accomplishment.”

On Wednesday, it was Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s turn to deliver the White House sales pitch to reporters on Air Force One.

“There were concrete actions taken,” Tillerson said of the Middle East swing.

In addition to the extremist financing agreement and other moves to combat such groups by the Saudis and others, he pointed to “very substantive discussions” with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

“The president was very forceful in his encouragement to both of them to be serious about approaching these discussions in the future and recognize you have to compromise,” Tillerson said.

Tillerson and the senior administration official essentially declared that the president and his top aides managed to successfully turn the page on American involvement in the region after distrust built under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

The Middle East leg of the trip was “very essential towards trying to re- establish America’s credibility in the region,” the senior administration official said Tuesday. “We’re putting America’s place in the world as leaders back [in place].” 

This came after Trump, in an appearance with Israeli President Reuven Rivlin in Israel, said, “We just got back from the Middle East, just got back, Saudi Arabia.” Israel is in the Middle East. 

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Senior Democratic lawmakers were not impressed with the White House talking points.

“Of course, they’re going to brag about the success of their trip — but the proof is in the policy,” Senate Minority Whip Richard J. Durbin of Illinois said Wednesday. “If there are any changes that benefit the security of the United States, I think that will take some time to measure.”

Senate Intelligence Committee member Ron Wyden dismissed the White House’s victory lap.

“The President is in the middle of a trip to visit several U.S. allies, which is something presidents do fairly routinely,” the Oregon Democrat said in a statement to Roll Call. “This is kind of like shooting a layup in foreign policy terms. It should be expected that a president of the United States can get through this without causing another international incident.”

A Republican who has found himself frequently at odds with Trump called the trip “successful,” but had other concerns about the trip. .

“You get all the Sunni Arab leaders in a room and challenge them to up their game. Showing that we need partners is a change from the campaign rhetoric,” South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham said of the Middle East trip. 

Still, Graham would have preferred the administration to do more in the region to “empower women.”

“If we’re going to offer a hopeful life to compete with a glorious death,” he said of violent extremist groups’ recruiting messages, “you don’t want to take half their population off the table in terms of their capability.”

Niels Lesniewski contributed to this story.

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