It’s not unusual for American presidents to pursue a friendly relationship with the dictatorial monarchs of Saudi Arabia — sitting on the world’s largest oil deposits will do that — but no U.S. commander-in-chief has wooed the sheikhs of Riyadh with a greater zeal than Donald Trump and his entrepreneurial family.
Trump shocked the foreign policy establishment right after his 2017 inauguration when he made Saudi Arabia his first international trip, and he kept that focus on the billionaire regime throughout his presidency. Those courtesies extended to giving the young and ruthless Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, or MBS, a free pass for the brutal bone-saw murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, as well as the late-night bonding between MBS and Trump’s son-in-law and top adviser, Jared Kushner.
Now that the 45th president is an ex-president, exiled to his Mar-a-Logo mansion in Palm Beach, the Saudis don’t seem to have forgotten Trump, Kushner, and the services rendered during those four years in the White House. Earlier this month, Bloomberg reported that Kushner has been traveling through the Middle East and met again with his old pal MBS as he woos the Saudis’ massive $500 billion sovereign-wealth fund and other potential investors in his new venture capital gig that he calls Affinity Partners.
Speaking of affinity, it then came out that a new Saudi pro golf tour — a high-profile venture that’s fully backed by the wealth of the ruling family — has been in negotiations with Trump and his company about hosting two U.S. tournaments at the ex-president’s properties: the Doral resort in Florida and his Bedminster course in central New Jersey. Like many dodgy ventures that Trump comes near, it’s not clear whether the Saudi golf venture can succeed — the legendary pro Phil Mickelson tied himself in knots trying to explain his links to the serial human-rights violators, and other top golfers are staying away — but that’s not the point.
In typical fashion, the selling of the U.S. ex-presidency is not completely new, and yet Trump is quickly taking his transactional style of politics to crass new depths. That said, the would-be dangers of POTUS 45 and his potential quid-pro-quos with the murderous Saudis seemed to take on new risks this month with a third significant disclosure: Trump’s mishandling of presidential secrets, including classified documents amid some 15 boxes of paperwork that belong to the American people but were instead spirited away to Mar-a-Lago.
Suddenly, two questions that were whispered by some experts in the waning days of Trump’s presidency held greater significance: Could an ex-POTUS who bitterly believes (with zero evidence) that his re-election was stolen from him — a man who is also in hundreds of millions of dollars in debt — trade on his knowledge of America’s deepest secrets for an infusion of cash? And some 13 months later, are the Saudis really interested in Trump’s world-class golf courses, or in what the 45th president knows?
If anything, another major piece of news out of Trumpworld — that amid a New York State civil investigation into the finances of the Trump Organization, its longtime accounting firm Mazars has not only severed ties with the ex-president’s business but retracted 10 years worth of financial statements — has heightened these concerns. Bloomberg’s Tim O’Brien, an expert on Trump’s finances, says the Mazars’ move could cause banks that have loaned money to the enterprise to call in the debt, which could spell economic ruin.
I went to an expert on the topic of presidential secrets — the ex-CIA officer David Priess, author of 2017′s The President’s Book of Secrets, about the history of classified intelligence briefings — to get his thoughts on whether a former American president is now a national security risk. He told me he sees it as a kind of a mixed bag: Trump’s seeming lack of any moral compass has to be weighed against the widespread reports that he rarely paid close attention to his intelligence briefings or seemed likely to retain the kinds of secrets that keep spies awake at night.
“He’s probably not doing anything blatant,” Priess speculated, “but the fact that we’re even considering it, that we have to weigh the likelihood that it is happening, is alarming.” He noted that the intelligence communities become concerned when an ex-U.S. official has either a grievance against the federal government, or faces an overwhelming financial crisis. “[Trump] has all of those things.”
Priess noted that there are layers of top-secret information that an ex-president might possess. The most dangerous — the names of U.S. intelligence operatives, or high-tech methods of spying — may not be known to the former POTUS, or not well remembered if he was told. But Trump probably does retain knowledge about the broader types of intelligence that the U.S. might collect on an ally like the Saudis, which could be useful to that country’s monarchs.
To me, this all puts a dangerous layer of worry on top of the recent disclosures about Trump’s unusual — and almost surely unlawful — methods of presidential record keeping. First, we learned that the 45th president frequently ripped up key papers, sometimes leaving aides more mindful of the Presidential Records Act to tape them together, but sometimes flushing them down the commode. In other instances, it was reported, Trump’s aides put documents in burn bags, a seemingly clear-cut violation of the law.
Then, the news about presidential record keeping got even worse with the disclosure that 15 boxes of Trump’s presidential records were neither destroyed nor delivered where they are supposed to go, to the National Archives, but shipped down to Trump’s primary hangout of Mar-a-Lago. Not surprisingly, when archivists finally did get hold of these records, they contained some top-secret classified documents.
Some analysts immediately questioned whether any of the mishandled documents had to do with the January 6 insurrection on Capitol Hill that’s now being probed by a House committee and which could be of interest to the U.S. Justice Department. That’s a logical assumption, but my first thoughts went toward Trump’s unorthodox dealings with foreign powers like the Saudis, their wealthy friends in the United Arab Emirates, and of course Vladimir Putin’s Russia — a topic of renewed interest now that Putin has elected to risk World War III by invading Ukraine.
While Trump was in the White House, people legitimately asked questions about a tilt in U.S. foreign policy such as siding with the Saudis and UAE against an important ally in Qatar, or whether the administration had advance knowledge of Khashoggi’s murder or other repression of dissidents by MBS. Now that he’s in Mar-a-Lago and we know what we now know, it’s important to ask whether any of the documents that might answer those questions were flushed down the toilets, or stolen away to Florida for safe keeping. And if so, how much money would keeping Team Trump’s top secrets be worth to the Saudi royals?
As I noted early, Trump didn’t invent eyebrow-raising post-presidential maneuvers. Ronald Reagan arguably got the ball rolling when he took $2 million to address the Japanese, and others from both parties, including Bill Clinton, pocketed even more from foreign sources. But no one mixes tangled business dealings and cheesy ethical standards like The Former Guy. That’s why it’s imperative that the Justice Department treat the referral from the National Archives about the possible mishandling of classified documents by Trump and his aides with the utmost seriousness. Because who knows where else an investigation might lead?
There’s a lot going on the world this week, and with the unspeakable carnage in Ukraine at the moment it’s reasonable to ask about the relative importance of an ex-president’s business dealings, or his document handling. The thing is, when foreign actors invest in the 45th president they’re also investing in a possible 47th, with Trump currently leading for the GOP nomination in 2024. Before America puts Trump in charge in dealing with MBS and Putin a second time, the public has to learn what he’s trying to hide.
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