President Trump arrived in Jerusalem this week with a most curious bit of information for Israeli President Reuven Rivlin.
“We just got back from the Middle East,” Trump announced. “We just got back from Saudi Arabia.”
At this, the Israeli ambassador to Washington, Ron Dermer, put his forehead in his palm.
Did Trump not know Israel is in the Middle East? Did he not know he was in Israel? There was little time to contemplate this mystery, because Trump was moving on to generate more puzzlement at his meeting with Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister.
The two men had wrapped up a news conference and reporters were shouting questions when Trump volunteered a confession. “Just so you understand,” he announced, “I never mentioned the word or the name Israel in conversation. Never mentioned it during that conversation. They are all saying I did. So you had another story wrong. Never mentioned the word Israel.”
Thus did Trump apparently confirm that Israel was the unnamed ally that had provided sensitive intelligence to the United States that Trump then handed over to Russia. U.S. officials were concerned that if the ally were identified, Russia might try to disrupt the source.
Mark Twain wrote “The Innocents Abroad” in 1869 while traveling through the Holy Land and Europe. This week, Trump wrote his own chapter as he bumbled his way through Saudi Arabia and Israel before heading for Rome. Americans by now have become accustomed to perpetual chaos. Now lucky friends and allies are seeing the Trump tornado firsthand.
After Monday night’s attack at a concert in Manchester, England, Trump reacted with outrage and sorrow for those “murdered by evil losers in life.” But then he made this aside: “I won’t call them monsters because they would like that term. ... I will call them from now on losers because that’s what’s they are. They’re losers.”
Thus did the president apply the same label to murderous terrorists that he had previously bestowed on Rosie O’Donnell, Cher, Rihanna, Mark Cuban, George Will, Charles Krauthammer, Bill Maher, Ana Navarro, Chuck Todd, the attorney general of New York, an astrologer in Cleveland, Gwyneth Paltrow, Howard Stern, Jeb Bush, John McCain, Marco Rubio, Karl Rove, Megyn Kelly, the Huffington Post and the New York Daily News – among many others.
Beyond that, did Trump run a focus group to find out terrorists prefer being called “monsters” to “losers”? And does he suppose that taunting them as losers will be an effective counterterrorism strategy? If so, he might form an “L” on his forehead with thumb and forefinger when he invokes terrorist losers.
Presumably Trump didn’t think it through. Likewise, he didn’t mean to offend his hosts in Saudi Arabia by referring to “Islamic terror” rather than “Islamist terror.” He was “exhausted,” an aide explained. Perhaps fatigue also made him turn Saudi Arabia’s King Salman into “King Solomon” – he was off by 3,000 years – and expand the Strait of Hormuz into the “Straits of Hormuz.” Less clear is what made him leave a cheerful message in the guestbook at the Holocaust memorial Yad Vashem: “so amazing and will never forget!”
Trump does best when he sticks to the script others have written for him, as he did in his well-received speech in Saudi Arabia. It’s when he ad-libs that he gets in trouble, as when he proclaimed recently that peace is “maybe not as difficult as people have thought over the years.” Diplomats of the past 70 years must have been losers.
Problem is, Trump has trouble sticking to the script. The White House distributed Trump’s prepared remarks for his meeting with Rivlin, making it possible to identify his ad-libs, a clutter of asides and superlatives. “Amazing.” “Very holy.” “And that’s No. 1 for me.” “There’s no question about that.”
Had the president’s predecessors employed such filler, these immortal words might be etched in marble on the Potomac:
“Four score and seven years ago – that’s a long time ago, very long – our fathers, who spoke about this at great length, did what perhaps has virtually never been done before: brought forth on this continent, a new nation, a very great new nation – there’s no question about that – conceived in liberty – and that is so important! – and dedicated to the amazing proposition – and they felt very strongly about this, I can tell you – that all men are created equal. No. 1 for me.”
The world, hopefully, will not long remember the gaffes Trump made over there. But it can enjoy a good chuckle.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter, @Milbank.