Putting a fine point on the spin that President Donald Trump's trip to the Middle East has been a glowing, peace-dealing success, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross praised the fact that there were no protesters in Saudi Arabia—a nation where political dissonance is punishable by death.
Speaking to CNBC on Monday, Ross, who accompanied Trump on the weekend trip to Riyadh, said he found it "fascinating" that he did not see "a single hint of a protester anywhere there during the whole time we were there. Not one guy with a bad placard."
In turn, "Squawk Box" host Becky Quick pointed out "that might be—not necessarily because they don't have those feelings there—but because they control people and don't allow them to come and express their feelings the same way we do here."
"In theory, that could be true, but boy there was certainly no sign of it," Ross responded. "There was not a single effort at any incursion. There wasn't anything. The mood was a genuinely good mood."
He also noted that the Saudi security guards "all wanted to pose for a big photo op" before he left, after which they gifted him "two gigantic bushels of dates."
Wilbur Ross: "Fascinating" there were no protests in Saudi Arabia
CNBC: SA has strict govt controls
Ross: "In theory that could be true..." pic.twitter.com/zyyC70onuu
— Steve Kopack (@SteveKopack) May 22, 2017
The remarks immediately caught the ear of Middle East experts and other observers.
Bruce Riedel, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in the Center for Middle East Policy, told CNBC afterwards that Saudi Arabia is among the "most repressive" of free speech in the Middle East, adding: "Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy which forbids any political protest or any manifestation of dissent. It is also a police state that beheads opponents."
Others took to social media to highlight how outrageous Ross's statement was:
Ross also "touched" by gift of dates from Saudi security forces--who are involved in jailing dissidents, whipping bloggers, and beheadings.
— Brian Klaas (@brianklaas) May 22, 2017
Not a single hint of a protester in Auschwitz, most days. https://t.co/a7DfOxyDus
— Joyce Carol Oates (@JoyceCarolOates) May 22, 2017
The New York Magazine's Jonathan Chait wrote, "Ross is a superficial man, inexperienced in foreign affairs, and easily manipulated by symbolism." However, Chait continued, "he also clearly looks at a society where, unlike the United States, he can sweep through his day without encountering any evidence of political discontent. And he sees in this something to admire."
This is in keeping with Trump, of whom Chait observed: "Rather than hypocritically overlook the authoritarianism of our allies, he actually admires it."
Similarly, the Washington Post's Philip Bump pointed out, "Few Americans have been as publicly vocal about their opposition to protests than Ross's boss, President Trump. One of his first tweets as president-elect and one of his first tweets as president both focused on disparaging protests against him."
Ross is the same administration official who described Trump's bombing of Syria as "after dinner entertainment."