In early 2017, as the world was still processing the geopolitical earthquake that had been the ascension of Donald Trump to the American presidency, a high-ranking GOP congressman — California's Ed Royce, who chairs the House Foreign Relations Committee — rose to speak on the House floor. Royce's words about U.S. relations with Saudi Arabia entered the Congressional Record but made barely a ripple, except with his apparent audience — key, shadowy players in the connected inner circles of the rising Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, known to all as MBS … and of Donald Trump.
Royce's obscure speech was celebrated in an email by Trump ally and fund-raiser Elliott Broidy — at the time, newly minted deputy finance chair of the Republican National Committee. Broidy had just maxed out in campaign contributions to the California Republican and boasted in his (later hacked) emails that not only had he influenced Royce to made a policy flip toward the Saudis and away from its rival neighbor, Qatar, but that he'd "caused" the congressman to mention a virtually unknown Saudi general in his address from the House floor.
The world, by and large, did not know anything about that Saudi — Major General Ahmed al-Assiri — in early 2017.
It does now.
Assiri is — one way or the other — up to his eyeballs in the gruesome story that, in October 2018, has become the avatar of a world gone mad — the murder and alleged dismemberment of a U.S.-based Saudi opinion journalist for the Washington Post, Jamal Khashoggi.
This weekend, Assiri — credibly reported to be a leader of a Saudi "tiger team" of torturers and assassins — was ousted from his role as a top intelligence aide to MBS amid reports the Riyadh government is making Assiri into the "rogue killer" scapegoat for what happened inside a Saudi consulate in Istanbul. But almost no one — outside of the cowed posses around MBS and Trump — actually believes Assiri would have acted without orders from the Machiavellian prince.
How a future butcher of Istanbul came to be praised in the U.S. House of Representatives is just one mystery in a tangled web of involving Donald Trump, his closest aide and son-in-law Jared Kushner, Trump's ever-growing and ever-sleazier coterie of hangers-on, hundreds of millions of oil-soaked dollars, an illegal offer of help in Trump's 2016 election, alleged misuse of U.S. intel, and a filthy-rich despotic nation built on a foundation of torture, repression and — we now know — murder.
Given that history, it's been a dull surprise to watch the cringe-worthy amorality of an American president more interested in helping the Saudis get away with a ridiculous cover story than in getting to the bottom of the depravity that occurred in Turkey, or even in voicing the rest of the free world's outrage and anguish. Donald Trump will never get the truth or win justice for Khashoggi — but that doesn't mean that America can't. Put this near the top of your reasons for electing a brand new Congress on Nov. 6: Wiping the splatter of a journalist's blood off America's mortal soul.
Let's start with an important caveat: U.S. policy toward Saudi Arabia has been amorally bad for decades — long predating Trump and going back the 1970s and an Arab oil embargo that nearly destroyed the U.S. economy. In fact, it's a deal with the devil that goes all the way back to FDR, and it's resulted in absurdities like America's failure to pursue Saudi connections to two of the 9/11 hijackers (15 of the 19 were Saudi natives) and the subsequent decision to invade a completely different country — Iraq — in order to help Saudi's monarchs by closing our military bases there. But something has changed. In the new energy economy, we don't need Saudi oil the way we did in the 20th century. But we have craven, corrupt politicians who will bend over even farther to take some of their last remaining petrodollars.
Let's walk down the sordid trail of money and blood that got us here.
Step 1: The buying of Trump Inc. Over the last generation, Saudi rulers reached the same conclusion about Trump that the Russians apparently reached after The Donald visited Moscow in 1987: That here was a high-profile American who could be bought.
"Saudi Arabia, I get along with all of them," Trump told an Alabama rally in August 2015, as his campaign was just taking off. "They buy apartments from me. They spend $40 million, $50 million." This time, he wasn't lying. The Saudi government bought an entire floor of a Manhattan project called Trump World Tower for $4.5 million in 2001, an arrangement that would have resulted in millions more in fees. That wasn't Trump's first dealing with the House of Saud; in the early 1990s, as the developer teetered on the brink of personal bankruptcy, Prince Alwaleed bin Talal took the yacht that had been dubbed (ironically) The Trump Princess off Trump's cash-starved hands for $20 million.
That the way to Trump's heart runs through his wallet is something that stayed with the Saudis once his presidency dawned. Since late 2016, a flock of Saudi lobbyists (who spent $270,000 for food and lodging at Trump's D.C. hotel), the vast entourage of MBS. (credited for a surge in revenue at his New York hotels this past winter) and other Saudis (whose business offset losses at Trump's Chicago hotel) have aided the Trump Organization in an otherwise difficult time financially. It's important to remember these ties as you think about …
Step 2. The 2016 election and an indecent proposal. On Aug. 3, 2016, Donald Trump Jr. convened a meeting at Trump Tower that also included future anti-immigrant guru Stephen Miller, Blackwater founder and Trump insider Erick Prince, a lobbyist with deep ties to the Saudi rulers and their allies in the United Arab Emirates, or UAE, named George Nader, and an Israeli specialist in psychological warfare named Joel Zamel.
What the Saudis's apparent emissary, Nader, reportedly said that day was stunning. He said the Saudis and UAE wanted Trump to beat Hillary Clinton that November and were willing to put their wealth behind efforts — which, needless to say, would have been illegal — to make that happen. Specifically, they proposed a covert social-media campaign — strikingly similar to one that special counsel Robert Mueller has charged was carried out that fall by Russian spies — to target American voters on Trump's behalf, run by Zamel's Psy-Group.
Trump's then-deputy campaign manager Rick Gates (since convicted and cooperating with Mueller) also reached out to Zamel's now-defunct company about a scheme that would have created 5,000 "bogus personas" — i.e., fake people — that would have persuaded real delegates if somehow the 2016 Republican convention in Cleveland had been deadlocked. Team Trump says it never went through with the supposed Saudi and Zamel schemes. Maybe that's true, but Nader did reportedly later pay Zamel $2 million. No one has been able to explain why. By then, Trump's presidency was at hand, and a bigger — and, if possible, sleazier — inner circle was racing to cash in.
Step 3: The Big Payback. Nader — a convicted pedophile with ties to the Gulf states that stretched back for decades — and his new pal, the once-obscure political fixer and businessman Broidy, strengthened their ties to both Trump and MBS as part of an effort which took them to the brink of a staggering payday of $1 billion.
On the American side, Broidy — named to his RNC post after raising money for Trump in 2016 — used his new prominence to shower cash on Republicans in Congress, leverage his access to the White House (even arranging for Nader, despite his child sex-abuse conviction, to get his picture with the president) and sponsor forums that would advance Saudi aims, including weakening American ties to Qatar even though that nation hosts a major U.S. military presence. (Broidy and Nader weren't the only Trump pals looking to cash in; National Enquirer CEO David Pecker, with a deep history of helping the president cover up various sex scandals, published a glossy tribute to MBS and his "Magic Kingdom" and put it on Walmart shelves as he used his White House ties to pursue lucrative deals in Riyadh.)
On the Gulf side, Nader and Broidy were reportedly paid millions by the UAE and were closing in on that billion-dollar payoff from the Saudis; Nader met personally with MBS and was told to run his future business dealings through MBS's right-hand man they called "General Ahmed," meaning Assiri. Assiri, who'd been the Saudis' spokesman for its ongoing campaign of genocide in Yemen, was clearly a rising star and a key person for gaining access to MBS, even as the Washington Post's David Ignatius learned Assiri was now running the "tiger team" to lock up, torture and, occasionally, kill rivals to the prince. Meanwhile, MBS had his own Prince Charming in America …
Step 4: The Jared factor. While Trump's friends cashed in, it was left to the ultimate White House insider, presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner, to serve as America's main point of contact with MBS. It's difficult to look at Kushner's performance over the last two years and not conclude that Team Trump knew it owed more than simply a debt of gratitude to the House of Saud.
Kushner — convinced that Saudi support was critical for his not-even-close-to-realized aspiration of fostering peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians — made sure that Saudi Arabia was his father-in-law's first international trip as president. He grew so close to MBS that they reportedly communicated directly through the secure channel known as WhatsApp, leaving the rest of the government in the dark over what they discussed.
Last October, Kushner made a surprise, unannounced trip to "the Magic Kingdom" where he spent a couple of days in secret meetings with MBS, reportedly staying up until 4 a.m. What did "the two princes" discuss? According to The Intercept, Kushner — who was devouring the president's super-secret daily security brief despite his then-inability to get a security clearance –discussed and disclosed the names of high-ranking Saudis who'd opposed MBS as he consolidated his power over the oil-rich kingdom. These ties grew as MBS was rounding up his opponents and detaining them — and sometimes torturing them — at a swank hotel in Riyadh. The Intercept also reported that MBS had told his close friend UAE Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed that Kushner was "in his pocket."
So it seems. The Trump administration has so far backed everything MBS and his regime has ever done — with the president and his son-in-law supporting the moves against Qatar that were opposed by the U.S. foreign policy establishment, and aiding the war in Yemen even as it threatens to become the worst humanitarian crisis of the 21st century, and at the same time failing to speak out against the kingdom's increasing human rights abuses.
To the majority of people who haven't been paying attention, the president's behavior in the past week — seemingly determined to help the Saudis develop and promote the implausible lie that Khashoggi died accidentally at the hand of "rogue killers" (including the sacrificial tiger, Assiri) and that MBS had nothing to do with it — seems shocking. In fact, it's just the logical conclusion of a tragic American amorality tale, in which a flood of money can wash away all sins, even murder. If this seems a low point in 242-year history of the United States, that's because it is.
But it doesn't have to be the end of the story. For one thing, Congress can, and should, act as soon as tomorrow to cut off all U.S. support — bombs, targeting, refueling … all of it — for the inhumane war in Yemen, and begin pressure for a truce and a diplomatic solution. We can't bring back Khashoggi, but we can save thousands of children in Yemen. We must. It's a moral imperative. And we must consider other sanctions against this murderous monarchy — but that's not all.
Trump and a GOP Congress that's received hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations from the Saudis' American lobbyists will never truly investigate the full story of U.S.-Saudi relations. That's (another) powerful selling point for electing a Democratic-led House — full of new political blood untainted by petrodollars — on Nov. 6. We need Democratic-led committees with subpoena power to answer the following questions:
— How much money does the Trump Organization or any Trump-related business enterprise receive from the Saudi government, its leaders and its lobbyists — much of it in seeming violation of the Emoluments Clause of the U.S. Constitution?
— Did the Saudis and their close ally, UAE, follow through on the scheme to help Trump win the 2016 election by targeting American voters with an illegal campaign of online propaganda?
— How much of American policy in the Middle East — with millions of lives on the line — was determined not by what was in the best interest of U.S. citizens, not to mention world peace and stability, but by the flood of money swirling around insiders like Nader, Broidy, Pecker, and the Trump family?
— What did Kushner and MBS really talk about in their secret meetings and over WhatsApp? Did Kushner pass along classified U.S. intelligence that led to the imprisonment, torture or even death of Saudi citizens whose only transgression was political dissent against MBS?
— Finally, given reports of possibly improper intelligence sharing, did Kushner or anyone else in the Trump administration pass along classified information about Khashoggi (whom, it's important to note, ran afoul of the Saudis after he criticized … wait for it … Trump)? And did Team Trump offer advice to MBS on how to cover up Khashoggi's murder? If so, why?
Look, the new Congress is going to have a lot on its plate next January. And anyone who's been a sentient human being the last two years knows that Khashoggi's murder — horrible as it is — is far from the only thing that needs to be investigated. But this is important. The questions raised here — whether money now trumps everything, even murder — cut to the very core of whether the American Experiment can continue. And we won't know the answers until we start asking.