From the ridiculous — remember that insane photo op with the glowing orb, and President Trump’s bizarre line dance with sword-wielding sheikhs? — to the covert, relations between the United States and its oil-soaked, blood-stained allies in Saudi Arabia have offered us a lot of insight into the treacherous nature of our most unconventional, unfit president.
But no moment in U.S.-Saudi relations was more fraught than a phone call that took place almost exactly one year ago, between the 45th president and the kingdom’s de facto day-to-day ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. For nearly two years, Trump and his son-in-law-turned-Middle-East-point-man Jared Kushner had coddled and flattered the young Saudi strongman (and vice versa), trading late night messages over Kushner’s protected app and critical intelligence — even, or especially, as the man the world knows as MBS launched a high-profile crackdown on his political enemies.
On October 2, 2018, something went terribly, terribly wrong. Jamal Khashoggi was both a Saudi dissident high on MBS’ “enemies list,” and an American journalist — granted U.S. residency and writing a column for the Washington Post, a newspaper that Trump frequently tars an “enemy of the people.” The columnist, needing official paperwork, had been lured to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul — and then never came out. Turkish intelligence filled in the gory and beyond-shocking details — that a Saudi hit team planted itself inside the government outpost, suffocating Khashoggi and somehow disposing of his body, possibly with the help of a bone saw.
An angry world wanted answers, and Trump was certainly in a position to ask the tough questions when he spoke on the phone to MBS a short time later. Instead — as we are just learning now, thanks to some skilled reporting from CNN — whatever happened in that phone call was the subject of elaborate effort to shield what was really talked about. In other words, a cover-up.
“In the case of Trump’s call with bin Salman, officials who ordinarily would have been given access to a rough transcript of the conversation never saw one, according to one of the sources,” CNN reported last Friday. “Instead, a transcript was never circulated at all, which the source said was highly unusual, particularly after a high-profile conversation.”
Much like Trump’s now-infamous July phone call with the Ukrainian president — now at the center of the impeachment inquiry that’s rocked the nation — officials told CNN the secrecy seemed less a matter of classified information and more an effort to avoid leaks and political embarrassment. This often happened when the president spoke with MBS or aging Saudi King Salman. Other listeners to these calls were restricted to top aides like the secretary of state and the national security adviser.
On the one-year anniversary of Khashoggi’s senseless murder, Americans need to know what Trump and MBS discussed that day — and the U.S.-Saudi relationship should be an integral part of any impeachment probe that’s serious about removing the 32-month-and-counting stain that the current White House occupant has etched into our wounded democracy,
There are many reasons why citizens need to know what happened on this call. For one thing, even as the whereabouts of Khashoggi’s dismembered remains are still unknown, the Trump administration continues to provide the Saudi dictatorship with expensive weapons, nuclear secrets, bombs to slaughter civilians in Yemen and now a vow to defend it against Iran in what could quickly become the worst conflict since World War II. Holding MBS to account for the full extent of his human-rights abuses could alter the course of that debate, for the good.
But there are also disturbing questions about America’s own conduct. In Kushner’s frequent, sometimes off-the-books late night bull sessions with MBS, did Trump’s son-in-law offer valuable U.S. intelligence, such as intercepted conversations, that helped the crown prince to round up and torture dissidents? Did U.S. government officials have advance knowledge of the Saudi plot against Khashoggi, and if so why was this Washington-based journalist not warned? Did Trump give MBS and his goons a free pass for slaughtering Khashoggi — just like the Washington Post reported that the president gave top Russians a free pass for interfering in the 2016 election?
Trump’s efforts to conceal his odd dealings with both the Saudis and the Russians — calls between Trump and Putin were also hidden in ways that were unusual and arguably improper, and the president famously grabbed one translator’s notes — also show why the House needs to move quickly yet also expand its impeachment probe beyond just the one call to Ukraine. In the end, Team Trump’s warped dealings with Ukraine, Russia and Saudi Arabia all point toward the same high crimes and misdemeanors of the 45th presidency — a willingness to conduct life-and-death foreign policy not over what’s good for the American people but what’s good for Trump’s political prospects, his bankbook, or his fragile ego.
Frankly, it’s been a little bit baffling why Trump’s bizarre relationship with Russia’s Putin hogs all the attention — prompting a two-year investigation by Special Counsel Robert Mueller and leading the cable news (except on Fox) night after night — when The Donald’s ties to Saudi Arabia are also quite troubling from both a political and ethical perspective.
For years, private citizen Trump often badmouthed the Saudis during his shoot-from-the-lip interviews. But the autocrats in Riyadh appear to have seen someone they could do business with, anyway. In the fateful year of 2001, the Saudi government paid $4.5 million to buy the entire 45th floor of Trump Tower, one of a number of business dealings with the New Yorker. “They spend $40 million, $50 million,” Trump told a 2015 campaign rally in Alabama. "Am I supposed to dislike them? I like them very much.” Emolumentally, the Saudis spent several hundred thousands dollars at Trump’s D.C. hotel after he was elected.
Shortly after Trump secured the GOP nomination in the summer of 2016, Donald Trump Jr. met in Trump Tower with a longtime adviser to the Saudis and their closest ally, the United Arab Emirates, George Nader, as well as the Israeli head of an intelligence firm specializing in “psy-ops.” Nader, according to the New York Times, told the junior Trump “that the princes who led Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates were eager to help his father win election as president.” The participants insist nothing came of this, although the firm later gave a presentation of work it may or may not have done to elect Trump and Nader later gave the firm’s owner a check for as much as $2 million.
As soon as he became president, Trump certainly acted like a man beholden. He made Saudi Arabia the destination for his first international trip as president (traditionally it’s Canada) and stunned many in his own administration when he sided with the Saudis in a spat against Qatar, long-time host of a key American military base.
Meanwhile, Kushner and MBS were becoming fast friends — trading frequent text messages and alarming some experienced U.S. diplomats with their closeness. MBS reportedly bragged to his associates in UAE that Kushner was “in his pocket” and eyebrows were raised when the Saudi prince launched his roundup of dissidents just a week after Trump’s son-in-law visited the kingdom in fall 2017.
Then came Jamal Khashoggi’s horrific murder, which changed everything.
I’m sorry, what I meant to say is that Khashoggi’s death changed nothing.
Trump said in a statement not long after his phone call with MBS that the killing essentially wouldn’t affect the close U.S.-Saudi relationship — adding that the Saudis “have been very responsive to my requests to keeping oil prices at reasonable levels.” He authorized the sale of sensitive nuclear technology to the regime, vetoed legislation to end American aid for the bloody Saudi military, and sold arms to their monarchy over the objections of Congress.
Neither a finding by the CIA that MBS almost certainly ordered the hit on Khashoggi nor a similar report by a UN human-rights panel made any difference. Nor has the Trump administration ever bothered to explain why the Washington Post journalist wasn’t warned when U.S. intelligence picked up conversations about a Saudi scheme to capture him.
But now — on the one year anniversary of Khashoggi’s death — there is a fresh opportunity to pursue what once seemed unobtainable: The truth. Both the revelation of a concerted White House effort to conceal the substance of Trump’s talks with MBS and King Salman and the added power and weight of a House impeachment inquiry make it imperative for investigators to learn what the president and his son-in-law knew about a cold-blooded murder, and when they knew it.
The temptation for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Democrats to focus on the simplest low-hanging fruit — Trump’s seemingly overt abuse of power in his approach to Ukraine — is understandable. But Trump’s dealings with Riyadh cut to the immoral core of a tarnished presidency. We need to get to the bottom of this sordid story, because if America is a nation where our leaders can look the other way on a journalist’s murder to get low gas prices on Election Day or for a few overpriced nights in Dear Leader’s hotel, then what in God’s name have we become?