Roger Ailes was concerned that Trump was endangering Trumpism with his antics. With this in mind, Ailes wanted to start a new conservative, “Trumpist” network to keep the faith alive. Peter Thiel, the Silicon Valley billionaire, would pay for it and O’Reilly, Hannity, Ailes and perhaps Bannon would populate it with content. Unfortunately, two days before a critical meeting would take place, Roger Ailes slipped in the bathroom and hit his head. A week later, he was dead.
Ailes’ funeral was a mix of conservatives. Some were vocally pro-Trump, others were trying to distance themselves. Beth Ailes made sure to only invite those loyal to her late husband. Trump himself was not invited, especially since he turned his back on Ailes to court Rupert Murdoch. This decision to exclude Trump seemed validated in light of an absolute lack of acknowledgement from Trump on the funeral. He didn’t even make a call.
Trump thought he just needed a big win to get his administration back on track. The problems in the first hundred days of his administration didn’t matter, he thought, if he could get one big win out of it. He had fulfilled none of his campaign pledges. Repeal and Replace was gone, infrastructure was still a problem, and there was no real tax reform yet. This is why he focused on peace in the Middle East. Being a showman, he didn’t care about the details as long as he got some kind of spin-able result.This is when MBS came into the picture.
MBS is short for Mohommad bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud. Where the rest of the world was horrified by Trump’s ascendency, MBS saw opportunity. Thanks to Michael Flynn, Trump had an “enemy of my enemy is my friend” mentality to the Middle East. Iran was the bad guy and the Saudis were against Iran. Therefore they are the good guys.
MBS saw a chance for a reset in relations between the US and Saudi Arabia and contacted Trump through Jared Kushner. Trump’s thinking on the Middle East was very simple. The thinking was that there were four players: Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Iran. If the other three countries aligned against Iran, the Middle East issue was solved. Trump also had a lot of contempt for previous administrations. He was very interested in not doing whatever had been done previously and therefore would do the opposite of whatever had been done in the past. Rather than adopt a nuanced and careful approach, he went with Cold War tactics. Who can we work with? Who can’t we work with? Who can we sacrifice? For Trump, the era of the Cold War was when America was great.
Kushner put Trump’s ideas to the test by going to China, Mexico, Canada and Saudi Arabia. He presented each of them the opportunity to please his father-in-law. Mexico wasn’t willing to play the “please Trump” game. Canada had Justin Trudeau, who smiled and kept his mouth shut around Trump. Trump liked him immediately. China likewise realized the value of flattery when dealing with the new President. Saudi Arabia, however, took pleasing Trump to another dimension completely.
Foreign policy wonks were deeply worried about Kushner’s relationship with MBS. They thought he was being duped at best, but Kushner also had the philosophy of embracing anyone who embraced Trump. His plan was transactional; give us what we want and we well give you what you want. A meeting with MBS was arranged and MBS and Trump were fast friends. Both men were skilled in charm and flattery. MBS offered Trump a series of proposals that would give him his win and in return Trump basically allowed himself to be used in a power play MBS had planned for back home.
A trip was planned from May 19 to May 27, which frightened the State Department. Trump had no background or training in foreign policy and therefore was unprepared. On the other hand, the trip enabled Trump to get out of Washington and escape the Comey scandal. Trump himself was effusive that Kushner had “gotten the Arabs totally on our side. Done Deal.”
When Trump arrived in Riyadh, his motorcade came across billboards showing him and the Saudi King together with the words “Together We Prevail”. Trump and his family were given lavish attention by the Saudis. They were ferried around in gold golf carts, took part in a $75 million dollar party and received an honor from the Saudi king. The Saudis summoned representatives from other nations to greet the President. Flattery was everywhere. Trump called his friends back home to brag how easy it was to win over the Saudis as well as ponder why Obama had been unable to do the same thing.
The flattery paid off. Trump gave the nod for Saudi Arabia to force its will on Qatar. He blamed Qatar for supporting terrorist groups, but conveniently overlooked Saudi Arabia’s tendency to do the same. MBS, weeks after the trip, detained a political rival, Mohammed bin Nayef and forced him to relinquish the title of Crown Prince of the House of Saud and hand it over to MBS. Trump bragged about this, saying that he and Jared had engineered a coup to put “their man” in power. After Saudi Arabia, Trump traveled to Israel to meet Benjamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas and from there to Rome to meet the Pope. From there he went to Brussels and denigrated Western-alliance-based foreign policy in favor of America First rhetoric.
Trump expected more response than what he got from the media. He thought he was shaping history, but he underestimated how people would feel about what he was doing, especially in light of the Russia investigation. Trump didn’t really grasp the concept of cause and effect, especially since in the past, before his presidency, he could always change the subject or somehow distract the conversation. This was no longer working and he felt trapped as a consequence.
Everyone in Trump’s orbit tried to figure out what everyone else thought about Trump without revealing their own feelings. Prior to Comey and Mueller, everyone blamed Trump, but no one would admit it thanks to the ongoing paranoia. After Comey and Mueller, however, there was open discussion, with one person stating, “He’s not only crazy, he’s stupid.” Even Trump was privately (slightly) chastened by the fallout. Bannon saw his opportunity. His new role was to save Trump. Challenging, but it meant that Trump, who was basically an expert at this point at exposing himself to trouble, would cause Bannon’s position to rise every time he did something stupid.
Bannon’s plan was to seal off the presidency. He saw it happen with Bill Clinton’s investigation and he believed that the West Wing needed to be sealed off, with a separate legal and communications team to act as a barrier between Mueller and the President. Reince Priebus noticed to important points with this plan. First, that Bannon was filling all the necessary position with people loyal to him. Second, Bannon was expecting Donald Trump to let this happen without trying to interfere directly. This was something Trump was almost engineered not to do.
It didn’t help that nine top law firms said “no” to the project. None of the top guns wanted to be associated with Trump.