Newt Gingrich loses his cool over "open marriage" accusations

The Republican candidate may have shot himself in the foot with last night's tirade.

At last night's Republican debate in South Carolina, all eyes were on Newt Gingrich as he erupted over claims he wanted an "open marriage" with his second wife and lashed out at what he described as "the destructive, vicious, negative nature" of the media.

CNN's John King opened the debate by asking Gingrich if the allegations made by former wife Marianne were true. The stunned presidential hopeful was prompted by King who asked: ""Would you like to take some time to respond to that?" A red-faced Gingrich replied: "No, but I will," earning cheers and a standing ovation from the audience.

Newt's tirade continued as he blamed the media for making it "harder to govern this country, harder to attract decent people to run for public office" and said he was appalled that CNN began a presidential debate on that topic.

Unsurprisingly Gingrich vehemently denied the claims, stating: "To take an ex-wife and two days before the primary [raise] a significant question in the presidential campaign is as close to despicable as anything I can imagine ... I am frankly astounded that CNN would take trash like that and open the debate."

However, a combative Gingrich wasn't done yet. After King pointed out that it was ABC, not CNN, who aired his ex wife's claims of an "open marriage", Gingrich told him not to blame anybody else and stressed his disgust that the debate was opened with such a personal question. He then blamed the "elite" media for protecting President Obama.

However, despite earning a standing ovation from the South Carolina crowd when he angrily rebuked King, it appears Newt doth protest too much and his outburst may turn out to be a PR disaster, giving greater prominence to the allegations and therefore alienating the evangelical Christians who dominate South Carolina.

Fellow nominee Rick Santorum expressed worry over Gingrich's temper, saying that "these are issues of character to consider" and Ron Paul, who was more of a spectator than a participant in last night's debate, made a blatant attempt to highlight his own personal values, piously expressing his pride over his wife of 54 years.

Frontrunner Mitt Romney, with whom Gingrich is almost neck-and-neck in the polls, earned applause by taking the high road and saying: "Let's get on to the real issues. That's all I've got to say." However, he might have regretted moving off the subject of Newt's escapades so quickly as he was faced with yet more questions about his tax returns. A defensive Romney fumbled through his answer, vaguely promising to release the past year's tax return in April.

Three-times-married Gingrich is well-known for his infidelities, causing many staunch conservatives to question his moral fibre. He famously called for the impeachment of former President Bill Clinton following his Oval Office dalliance with Monica Lewinsky, at the same time that he himself was having an affair.

Gingrich's explosive temper was also an issue when he served as House speaker. He was blamed for two partial government shutdowns during the battle over the budget, which made him seem reckless and hot-headed. A wide-spread editorial cartoon depicted him as having a rather embarrassing temper tantrum.

Despite a storming performance at Monday night's debate, by unleashing such a tirade last night Gingrich may have inadvertently shot himself in the foot.

 

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Under pressure at home, Donald Trump will struggle to deliver what Saudi Arabia wants

Above all, the Gulf states want stability. Can this beleaguered US president bring order?

There is a nervous energy around Riyadh. Fresh palm trees line the roads from the airport, punctuated by a wall of American flags and corporate slogans: “Together we prevail.” All the street lights are suddenly working.

The visit of any American president is always a lavish affair in Saudi Arabia, but there is an optimism to this visit that evaded the Obama years and even the recent visits of Theresa May and Angela Merkel.

Yet, there are two distinct parts to this trip – Trump’s first overseas engagement as president – that will determine its success. The first is relatively straightforward. Trump will sign huge defence contracts worth billions of dollars and offer trading opportunities that allow him to maintain his narrative of economic renewal for American businesses.

For the Saudis, too, these deals will fit into their ambitious project – known as Vision 2030 – to expand and diversify their economy away from its current dependence on oil revenues. Both parties are comfortable with this type of corporate and transactional government, enjoying the gaudy pomp and ceremony that comes with the signing of newly minted deals.

The more complicated aspects of the trip relate to its political dimensions. As the Middle East continues to convulse under the most significant turmoil to envelope it since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, what Gulf leaders desperately want is the re-establishment of order. At its core, that is what will define Donald Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia – and the Saudis are optimistic.

Their buoyancy is borne of shared regional interests, not least curbing Iranian influence. Ever since the Arab uprisings in 2011, Tehran has asserted itself across the Levant by organising hundreds of proxies to fight on its behalf in Syria and Iraq. Closer to home, too, the Gulf states accuse Iran of fomenting unrest within Shia communities in Saudi Arabia’s eastern provinces, in Bahrain, and in Yemen.

All of this has left the House of Saud feeling especially vulnerable. Having enjoyed an American security umbrella since the 1970s, Obama’s pursuit of the Iran deal left them feeling particularly exposed.

In part at least, this explains some of the Kingdom’s more frantic actions at home and abroad – including the execution of prominent Shia cleric, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, and the war in Yemen. Both are really about posturing to Iran: projecting power and demonstrating Saudi resolve.

Trump shares these concerns over Iranian influence, is prepared to look the other way on Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, and is deeply opposed to Obama’s nuclear deal. Riyadh believes he will restore the status quo and is encouraged by the direction of travel.

Just last month Trump commissioned a review of the Iran deal while the US Treasury imposed sanctions on two Iranian officials. Saudi Arabia also welcomed Trump’s decision to launch cruise missiles against a Syrian military base last month after Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons in the town of Khan Sheikhoun.

These measures have been largely tokenistic, but their broader impact has been very significant. The Saudis, and their Gulf partners more generally, feel greatly reassured. This is an American presence in the region that is aligned to their interests, that they know well and can manage.

That is why Gulf states have rushed to embrace the new president ever since he first entered the Oval Office. Saudi Arabia’s deputy crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman (colloquially known simply as “MBS”), already visited him in Washington earlier this year. The Emiratis and others followed shortly afterwards.

A spokesman for Mohammed bin Salman later described the meeting with Trump as an “historical turning point” in relations between the two countries. A White House readout of the meeting baldly stated: “The President and the deputy crown prince noted the importance of confronting Iran's destabilising regional activities.”

Now that Trump is visiting them, the Saudis are hoping to broker an even broader series of engagements between the current administration and the Islamic world. To that end, they are bringing 24 different Muslim leaders to Saudi Arabia for this visit.

This is where Trump’s visit is likely to be fraught because he plans to deliver a major speech about Islam during his visit – a move that has seemingly no positives associated with it.

There is a lot of interest (and bemusement) from ordinary Saudis about what Trump will actually say. Most are willing to look beyond his divisive campaign rhetoric – he did, after all, declare “I think Islam hates us” – and listen to him in Riyadh. But what can he say?

Either he will indulge his audience by describing Islam as a great civilisation, thereby angering much of his political base; or he will stick to the deeply hostile rhetoric of his campaign.

There is, of course, room for an informed, careful, and nuanced speech to be made on the topic, but these are not adjectives commonly associated with Donald Trump. Indeed, the pressure is on.

He will be on the road for nine days at a time when pressure is building over the sacking of the former FBI director James Comey and the ongoing investigation into former national security advisor Michael Flynn’s contacts with Russia.

It is already being reported that Trump is not entirely enthusiastic about such a long overseas programme, but he is committed now. As with almost everything concerning his presidency, this extra pressure adds a wild air of unpredictability to what could happen.

Away from the lucrative deals and glad-handing, this will be the real standard by which to measure the success of Trump’s visit. For a relationship principally defined by its pursuit of stability, whether Trump can deliver what the Gulf really wants remains to be seen.

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a senior research fellow at King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation.

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