There’s a powerful case to be made that the coronavirus crisis — with its mounting evidence that earlier and more aggressive U.S. intervention in March could have saved thousands of lives — isn’t the first or only time that people have died needlessly because of Donald Trump’s unfitness for the presidency.
For more than two years, civilians in Yemen — where a humanitarian crisis caused by a ceaseless Saudi Arabian military campaign has killed tens of thousands and exposed millions to the risk of starvation and disease — have successfully convinced top Americans in both political parties that it was past time for the United States to stop its substantial support for the Saudi bombing campaign.
The turning point — well, what should have been the turning point — came on August 9, 2018, when the Saudi Air Force dropped a massive bomb on school bus carrying Yemeni summer school kids on a much-anticipated field trip. “I was screaming in anger and all around me women were throwing themselves on the ground,” Zeid Al Homran — whose two sons were murdered by the bomb — later told CNN. “People were screaming out the names of their children.” The 500-pound munition that killed his sons was a U.S.-supplied MK 82 bomb, made in America by the Lockheed Martin Corp.
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The horrific incident was one of dozens of times that American-made bombs have slaughtered innocent civilians in Yemen. To be clear, U.S. backing for the Saudi-led genocide in Yemen was initiated during the Barack Obama administration, in what now can be seen as possibly the most shameful decision of his presidency. But after the August 2018 school bus bombing, a bipartisan group in Congress aimed to cut off the American lifeline to the Saudi dictatorship — only to see the Trump administration, led by his Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, take extraordinary and increasingly questionable measures to make sure U.S. bombs continue to rain down on the Yemeni people.
The latest twist should alarm scandal-numbed Americans. The State Department inspector general, Steve Linick, was fired earlier this month shortly before he could release a report into why Pompeo signed an emergency declaration to allow $8 billion in new American arms sales, mostly to the Saudis and their closest ally, the United Arab Emirates, one year ago — not only bypassing certain opposition in Congress but even voices within the Trump administration who could see no “emergency.”
The lethal aid to the Saudi regime and its de facto leader, the murderous Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, known to all as MBS, is the exclamation point on one of the alarming patterns of U.S. behavior that I’ve seen in my lifetime.
It’s a pattern that started during the 2016 campaign when a veteran emissary of the Saudis and UAE showed up at Trump Tower with an Israeli psy-ops expert offering to help the GOP nominee win, and has continued for four years while the 45th president made Riyadh his first official stop and while his son-in-law-aide opened a direct WhatsApp line to MBS and has — inexplicably — still gone on after MBS’ goons killed and hacked up a Washington Post journalist and MBS himself hacked into the phone of the Washington Post’s owner (despised also by Trump), rounded up and tortured his political rivals, and continued to buy U.S. weapons to slaughter woman and children in Yemen. (In the past three years, I’ve written practically a book on the Trump Tower meeting, Jamal Khashoggi’s murder, and the Jeff Bezos affair.)
Now Linick — part of a network of government watchdogs that was created in the 1970s after Watergate to prevent similar abuses of power — has been canned right before we could find out if he was on the brink of explaining some of the inexplicable. Incredibly, Linick is also just one of five — count 'em, five — D.C. inspectors general with fired or pushed aside in the last six or so weeks, either as apparent retribution (for the Ukraine probe and Trump’s impeachment) or before they could unravel new scandals like Transportation Secretary Elaine Chou’s seeming bias toward Kentucky, home state of her husband who happens to be Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
And yet somehow we have to strain to see the true meaning of the Linick firing through the pea-soup-thick fog of Trump’s nightmare presidency. And there are multiple layers. Many of the initial reports on the ouster of the State Department IG focused on other apparent probes of Pompeo’s all-around awfulness, including alleged use of a government employee to walk his dog, get his dry cleaning, etc., and lavish taxpayer-funded dinners aimed at bolstering the Kasan’s political future. Those things are bad, and easy for the typical voter to understand and get outraged over — but I’d argue they pale to the bending of the entire government to a murderous dictatorship overseas.
Indeed, in a simpler time, the vanishing of Linick and his investigations, along with his four IG comrades, would dominate the headlines much as Richard Nixon’s “Saturday Night Massacre" — the last time a corrupt president fired the people investigating him — riveted the nation in October 1973. Instead, as the coronavirus death toll relentlessly climbs toward the 100,000 mark, and with more than 38 million jobless, the Current Occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is babbling like a madman about taking an unproven drug that’s been known to cause hallucinations and other psychoses in people who take it. But Trump isn’t the only one struggling to focus — so is the media, and the nation.
But here’s the thing: Again and again during Trump’s presidency we’ve seen a phenomenon where America’s dangerous long-term trends of the last 40 years (or longer) — including rampant income inequality, racism in the criminal justice system, denial of climate change — were already raging dumpster fires on January 20, 2017. It’s just that Trump — with his toxic mix of narcissism, unchecked authoritarianism, and lack of any ethical or moral compass — arrived to drop napalm on the preexisting blaze.
The tangled U.S.-Saudi relationship combines all of the worst of this. If the pompous and lethally corrupt Saudi monarchs reigned on a rocky desert isle, America would not give them the time of day, but their endless supply of oil has made them the pusherman for our fatal addiction, and then we’ve also tossed the greed of our military-industrial complex onto the mix. Last week, the New York Times published a withering expose on how the massive defense contractor Raytheon Corp. has continued to make billions of dollars on its Yemeni-killing bombs — a money machine that benefits from a former Raytheon lobbyist, Mark Esper, serving as Defense Secretary (so much for “draining the swamp,” huh?) and from the defense giant hiring Pennsylvania’s own David Urban, a Trumpist who frequently defends the president on cable TV, as its new lobbyist. We don’t know how much more fired IG Linick had uncovered.
Nor can we explain why the Saudis keep getting a free pass for the unfortunate tendency of some of their citizens to find new and horrible ways to murder Americans. OK, you can debate whether that list includes the gruesome, premeditated murder of Jamal Khashoggi, the American-based Washington Post columnist living here on a green card (and killed in Turkey.) But while the new secrets of Pompeo, Team Trump, and the MBS gang remain buried, old ones keep bubbling up.
Coincidentally, we also learned this month the identity of the Saudi government official, Musaed Ahmed al-Jarrah, who aided two of the 9/11 hijackers. William Barr’s Justice Department fought for two years to keep that name secret. Why? And we also learned that an Saudi Air Force officer — allowed into the U.S. for training — had been working with al-Qaeda terrorists in plotting his 2019 attack and the murder of three American sailors in Pensacola, Fla. And yet for some reason Team Trump’s plan for the Persian Gulf is not to confront Saudi Arabia but threaten war with the Saudis’ enemy, Iran.
It’s been clear since 2016 that the real threat posed to democracy by Donald Trump isn’t his rude tweets but the ease with which he, his ethically unmoored family, and the sycophants around him — with Mike Pompeo the epitome of that repulsive species — have been willing to sell out the American Experiment to whichever foreign dictatorship is offering the highest bid. which on any given day might be Turkey or Vladimir Putin’s Russia ... or Saudi Arabia.
For 40 months now, no one inside the current government has been asking about this. Nor has anyone within the White House bothered to ask who killed Jamal Khashoggi, or why “our friends the Saudis” just can’t quit their ties with anti-American terrorists. And when Congress finally, belatedly, took it upon itself to ask why were complicit in the murder of so many Yemenis, the Trumpists bent and maybe broke the law to keep the dirty plates spinning. And when one honest man implanted inside the government, Steve Linick, sought answers, they fired him.
What worries me is that there’s too many excuses — the coronavirus, the economic depression, Trump’s now-possibly-drug-addled insanity and optimism (naive? who knows?) that his presidency will be over in eight months — not to press for answers. At the end of the day, Trump’s massive kowtow to MBS and the Saudis is the defining scandal of his president. We must urge Congress — well, House Democrats, at least — to get to work and uncover the truth that Steve Linick could not.