Is This Normal? is a Slate series that attempts to determine which controversial Trump World behaviors are outrageously unprecedented, which are outrageous but within the realm of what others have gotten away with, and which shouldn’t be considered outrageous at all.
In May 2016, then-candidate Donald Trump delivered a major speech on his “America First” energy policy, detailing how he would “make America wealthy again.” Fast forward to July 2019: The New York Times reports that campaign officials sent drafts of that speech to representatives of the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia for edits and made slight changes to it at their behest.
The vetting was orchestrated by Thomas Barrack, a California businessman with a network of connections in the Middle East, and Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign manager who is now in prison for financial crimes. Weeks before Trump gave the speech, Manafort asked Barrack, “Are you running this by our friends?” He was. The most important of the “friends” in question was Rashid al-Malik, a well-connected Emirati businessman who was passing the speech on to various UAE and Saudi government officials. Al-Malik sent back a marked-up draft of the energy speech with language that praised “a new generation of leaders in the Gulf,” including both the Emirati crown prince and then Deputy Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Mohammed bin Salman. Although the Trump speechwriters ultimately nixed the exact phrasing requested—it’s unclear if Trump himself knew the drafts were being edited externally—they slipped in a nod to the “friends.”
“We will work with our Gulf allies to develop a positive energy relationship as part of our anti-terrorism strategy,” the speech ultimately read.
So, Trump’s campaign submitted an important speech to foreign allies for review. Is this normal?
Engaging in diplomacy and maintaining solid communication with foreign allies are important. It’s also ideal if major speeches reflect values and policy objectives that the U.S. shares with its allies.
However, this was a speech on domestic energy policy that was delivered before Trump was even elected. Experts told Slate they know of no precedent for a sitting president’s administration to have consulted foreign officials on word choice in a speech, much less for a candidate on the campaign trail to have done so. According to David Litt, a speechwriter for former President Barack Obama, “It suggests that a foreign government was at the table, helping craft American policy, as though the UAE was a stakeholder here.” It’s definitely hard to ignore the irony in a policy that was trumpeted as “America First” literally being altered by foreign counterparts. To Litt, this correspondence was also out of the ordinary in that it suggests a pattern of prioritizing foreign concerns over American interests.
Ned Price, a former member of the National Security Council and intelligence official during the Obama administration, explained that he’s never heard of this extent of direct speech editing, but that during his tenure, “some remarks and rollouts were flagged for our foreign partners ahead of time,” as a heads-up to protect local interests in the area. Price gave the example of the Senate’s release of the “Torture Report” in 2014. In that case, the NSC provided advance notice to countries that might be subject to protests or violence due to the report’s details. However, there was no opportunity for editing or rewording of the report, and it was done to protect local citizens and American diplomats in the region. This is a pretty far cry from submitting drafts of a speech to a foreign government for edits, which Price suspects wouldn’t have occurred “were there not money on the line for those in Trump’s orbit.”
Litt and Price agree that this is decidedly Not Normal. Price, in fact, said it was a “resounding ‘no.’ ” The House Oversight Committee and federal prosecutors share that sentiment, seeing as they launched an investigation into the exchanges and obtained 60,000 documents of text and email correspondence. According to Rep. Elijah Cummings, the head of the Oversight Committee and commissioner of the investigation, this administration “has virtually obliterated the lines normally separating government policymaking from corporate and foreign interests.”