If you’re in that minority of folks who actually watch impeachment trials of the president of the United States, and were thus either spellbound or bored on Wednesday by the soaring, Hamiltonian rhetoric of lead House Democratic manager Rep. Adam Schiff, you might not have heard about this yet. But the political equivalent of a nuclear bomb just exploded in the Persian Gulf. Or at least the news should have had that kind of impact.
Two top experts for the United Nations on cyber-crimes have confirmed an explosive theory that’s been ticking for the last year: That Saudi Arabia was behind the phone hacking of the (then, anyway) world’s richest man — Amazon founder and Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos — right before salacious pictures and texts that ended Bezos’ marriage were published in the National Enquirer. But the revelation carried a shocking twist — the hack itself was alleged carried out when the Saudis’ de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, or MBS, traded phone numbers with Bezos and personally sent him a message infected with malware.
The report is so mind-blowing on so many levels it’s hard to separate out which part is worse. That the dictatorial ruler of one of the world’s richest countries committed a major cyber-crime that could also have sparked a blackmail campaign against an American billionaire? Or that the underlying crime that triggered this was the violent murder and dismemberment by bone saw of a U.S.-based columnist for the Washington Post? Or that, under the bended-knee pro-Saudi lapdoggery of President Trump, the United States not only isn’t investigating or even responding to an all-out foreign attack on American press freedom, but has rewarded MBS’ blood-drenched regime with a mercenary army of U.S. troops and our nuclear secrets?
The scandal has nothing to do with Trump’s impeachment trial that began in earnest this week ... and everything to do with it. The president’s see-no-evil defenders on Capitol Hill are trying, quite unconvincingly, to convince the American people that Trump’s impeachment isn’t about an extensive effort to hijack the power of the U.S. government (and its dollars) to bully a foreign ally and get dirt to cheat in an election, but merely a dispute over one random phone call.
What’s so important to understand is that Donald Trump’s abuse of the American presidency isn’t random, and it goes way beyond one phone call. The president’s tinhorn-dictator, cashing-in tendencies are so pervasive that there’s usually more than one example on any given day. Take Wednesday. A few minutes before the Democratic arguments in the impeachment trial, the D.C. attorney general filed a lawsuit accusing Trump and his daughter Ivanka of steering $1 million in inaugural donations (which came from corporations or shady people seeking White House favors) to the Trump Organization’s D.C. hotel for an insanely overpriced ballroom rental. It’s another reminder that removing Trump over one phone call to Ukraine is the equivalent of nailing murderer Al Capone on his tax returns — underwhelming, yet necessary.
But the Trump-Saudi-Khashoggi-Post-Bezos-Enquirer nexus is, arguably, the worst-of-the-worst, betraying how an unfit president has sold out U.S. policy — and even our young troops — to murderous dictators while championing the obliteration of the civil liberties like press freedom that might restrain tyranny in America and in our so-called allies.
It’s also a very complicated, long-running saga — so much so that I wrote up a detailed timeline and stashed it on my Twitter feed for those who want to know more. (Read it here.) But here are the major twists and turns in U.S.-Saudi relations:
Trump and the Saudis. In August 2016 right after Trump’s shock GOP nomination, Donald Trump Jr. held a Trump Tower meeting with Middle East fixer (and past and future convicted pedophile) George Nader, a mysterious Israeli expert in psy-ops named Joel Zamel, and founder of the Blackwater mercenary firm Erik Prince. Nader said the rulers of Saudi Arabia and its ally, United Arab Emirates, wanted to help Trump win in November and pitched a secret social-media campaign by Zamel to help. Participants swear this never happened yet a) Nader wrote Zamel a $2 million check and b) Zamel’s firm gave an “if-I-did-it” presentation on aiding Trump.
Once elected, Trump announced Saudi Arabia would be his first foreign trip and that his Middle East point man would be son-in-law Jared Kushner, who became fast friends with MBS. On an October 2017 visit, Kushner allegedly shared classified U.S. intel with MBS ahead of a brutal crackdown on dissidents. Instead of cooling U.S.-Saudi relations, the Saudis’ October 2018 murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi (see below) was followed by a) Trump’s unqualified support for MBS’ regime b) a secret transfer of American nuclear technology to Riyadh just days after the killing c) a 2019 move by Trump — elected on a promise to bring U.S. forces home from the Middle East — to instead send thousands of American troops to the kingdom, for a $500 million check.
Trump, the National Enquirer, and the Saudis. Another covert player in Trump’s surprise election in November 2016 was David Pecker, publisher of the supermarket tabloid. For years, Pecker’s Enquirer had stored racy secrets about Trump in an actual safe, and in 2016 it carried out two unlawful schemes to keep Trump’s illicit paramours out of the news. In 2017, Trump welcomed Pecker at the White House along with a guest, a French top adviser to MBS. A year later, Pecker and the Enquirer’s parent published a glossy, overpriced tribute to “the magic kingdom" of Saudi Arabia and the youthful dynamism of MBS.
The Saudis and the Washington Post. Meanwhile, in December 2016, Saudi Arabia had banished a well-known journalist, Jamal Khashoggi. His sin? Writing a column that criticized ... Donald Trump. The exiled Khashoggi took up residence in the United States and began a regular op-ed column in the Post in 2017. Shortly after that, MBS told an associate that he wanted Khashoggi to stop writing and vowed to use “a bullet” on him.
In October 2018, Khashoggi had an appointment at a Saudi consulate in Istanbul for paperwork he needed for his pending marriage. There, as detailed by Turkish intelligence, thuggish Saudi agents brutally murdered the Post journalist and most likely dismembered him with a bone saw brought for the occasion. His body has never been found. The Saudis eventually claimed his killing was an accident by rogue operatives, but the CIA concluded the assassination was ordered by MBS. The publisher of the Post and journalists there have decried “a cover-up” and demanded justice — which reportedly flamed MBS’ anger at the Post and its owner, Bezos.
Trump and the Washington Post. MBS wasn’t the only global autocrat who had a beef with one of America’s two most prominent newspapers. President Trump directed much of his fury over negative coverage in the Post at its owner Bezos. He personally lobbied the postmaster general to double the postal rates that affected the core business of Bezos’ Amazon. What’s more, Amazon has accused the president — with some evidence on its side — of intervening to deny the firm a massive $10 billion Pentagon computing contract, solely because of Trump’s animosity to the owner of one of his main press critics.
MBS and Bezos. In April 2018, MBS and Bezos — who like most American businessmen smelled opportunity in the Saudis’ oil riches — held what seemed like a friendly meeting while the crown prince was on a whirlwind, star-studded U.S. tour. They even exchanged personal phone numbers. On May 1, 2018, according to the UN security experts, MBS sent Bezos a WhatsApp message (the same app that MBS and Kushner used to chat) to infect the Amazon/Post mogul’s phone with a kind of malware that allowed Saudi intelligence to hack its contents.
In January 2019, after Khashoggi’s murder and the Post’s crusade for justice, Bezos made the stunning announcement he was divorcing his longtime wife MacKenzie — hours before Pecker’s Enquirer published texts and racy photos between the billionaire and a secret lover. Bezos took to the internet to complain the Enquirer was essentially blackmailing him — and to air his suspicions that the Saudis were behind the hack. (The Saudis denied it and so did the Enquirer, which uncharacteristically claimed the lover’s brother was a source. A report in Friday’s New York Times stressed that a link between the Saudi hacking and the article has not yet been established.)
Wednesday’s stunning U.N. report — siding with Bezos and implicating the Saudis, with the direct involvement of MBS — provides some long-awaited answers but also raises a host of questions, many of them bouncing right off the Trump White House. One of the most important relates directly to Trump’s impeachment. Remember the whistleblower who kicked off the Ukraine scandal, in part because the record of Trump’s now infamous July 25, 2019 call with the new Ukrainian president was hidden on a secret computer server? Trump’s calls with MBS were moved to that same server. What is he hiding about those calls?
Some other questions: What unauthorized intelligence did Kushner — who was denied a security clearance but continued to review top-secret material — share with MBS? What, if anything, did Trump and Kushner know about the Saudis and Khashoggi, both before the murder and immediately after? What was the White House’s exact role in forging the unholy alliance between MBS and the Enquirer? And why did Trump himself, sounding like a two-bit Brooklyn mobster, tweet a hectoring post calling the Post owner “Jeff Bozo” just minutes after the Enquirer piece dropped?
Certainly the Justice Department needs to investigate the phone-hacking of a prominent U.S. businessman, although the chances of Trump’s lapdog Attorney General William Barr doing a good job on that front seem dim. Congress has its hands full right now, with all of Trump’s wrongdoing, on top of all the other people’s business, but it’s imperative that House Democrats launch a full investigation of the Trump-Saudi alliance and where it overlapped with this foreign power’s blood-soaked, illegal campaign against a major American newspaper.
More importantly, given the overwhelming evidence tying the top leadership of the Saudi kingdom to murder, illegal phone hacking and possibly blackmail, why are we continuing to support them with U.S. troops, with aid for MBS’ immoral war in Yemen, and with nuclear secrets that were transferred unlawfully, without informing Congress.
And there’s one more thing about all of this that really, really bothers me. It’s not surprising that the Saudi revelations have gotten lost in the swamp of Trump’s all-day impeachment blowout, but the tenor of what coverage has taken place has been a little too much Entertainment Tonight — “ooohh, billionaire hacks sexy pics from rival billionaire!” In fact, what has just transpired over the last 15 months ago has been one of the most egregious attacks ever against the 1st Amendment and American press freedom, conducted by a foreign dictator. And so far the official U.S. government response has been to reward the attacker.
The public should be very alarmed about such a blatant — and murderous — foreign assault on one of our most fundamental American liberties, the freedom to commit acts of journalism. There’s a tendency to dismisses Trump’s “enemies of the people” rhetoric against journalists as just that — empty oratory to whip up his core supporters.
But the Washington Post’s Jamal Khashoggi wrote columns criticizing President Trump and his close allies, the Saudis. For doing that, he was murdered, dismembered and dumped in an unknown location, and when his newspaper complained their owner, an American citizen, was illegally hacked and blackmailed. This is what “enemies of the people” looks like in blood-red living color, and it’s spectacularly ugly. It’s a story of two autocrats separated by an ocean but joined in their ambition to literally murder journalism when it threatens their power.