Today marks the 16-month anniversary of Donald Trump becoming the 45th president of the United States, and nowhere has our unlikeliest commander-in-chief placed a greater stamp on America's place in the world than his dramatic — and sometimes arbitrary and capricious, or so it seems — shifts in foreign policy. None of these seismic changes seemed more baffling than last spring's abrupt sellout of the Persian Gulf state of Qatar — a longtime ally where the U.S. Air Force Central Command and its 10,000 American troops are now based.
But suddenly, like the remarkable mid-speech policy reversal that occurs in George Orwell's 1984, we were, in a sense, at war with Qatar. We had always been at war with Qatar.
Trump stunned his own foreign policy team — including then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary James Mattis — when he tweeted that Qatar is a sponsor of terrorism and seemingly endorsed an economic and political blockage of the tiny, oil-rich nation organized and led by two powerful neighbors, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, or UAE.
How to make sense of a 180-degree shift in policy that seemed so counter to U.S. interests in the region? A few months later, people who suspect the worst about Trump and his minions learned a possible motive that was almost too cynical to comprehend. Not long before Team Trump switched gears on Qatar, key officials from the emirate had met with Charles Kushner — father of Trump's son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared, who's in charge of Trump's Middle East portfolio — to discuss a massive Qatar-funded bailout of 666 Fifth Ave., the debt-laden Manhattan skyscraper that was threatening to sink the Kushner family real estate empire. But the Qataris rejected the deal — just weeks before the policy about-face. Whatever actually happened, the appearance was simply awful.
It also seems not to have been the full story. This weekend, the New York Times published a stunning report about a plan floated by a longtime emissary for the Saudis and the UAE in early August 2016, when Trump had just grabbed the GOP nomination but faced an uphill campaign against Hillary Clinton. Donald Trump Jr., aide Stephen Miller and Erik Prince, founder of the notorious mercenary outfit once know as Blackwater, listened intently as the emissary offered Team Trump millions of dollars in assistance, including a covert social-media campaign, to help Trump win that would be run by a former Israeli spy who specializes in psychological warfare, or psywar.
"The emissary, George Nader, told Donald Trump Jr. that the princes who led Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates were eager to help his father win election as president," the Times reported. Some key elements — exactly who was behind the plan, and what parts, if any, were carried out — remain murky.
But like a lot of Trump scandals, the smoke from any alleged fire was clearly visible. Nader became a Trump ally who met frequently with key players like then-national security adviser (and future felon) Michael Flynn. He also, according to the Times, later made a large payment to the ex-spy Joel Zamel, as much as $2 million. After Trump was elected, Erik Prince attended a then-secret meeting in the Seychelles believed to have been brokered by UAE to cement ties with Vladimir Putin's Russia. After Trump became president, American foreign policy has been almost unwaveringly consistent in fighting for the foreign policy goals of nations believed to have supported his 2016 election: Russia, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE — most notably with Trump's rejection of the Iran nuclear deal that is seriously destabilizing the Middle East. These dealings increasingly appear to have benefited the Trumps and Kushners not just politically but financially — even as they are not helpful, and even counterproductive at times, to the American people whom Trump was allegedly elected to represent.
The Times scoop on Trump's dealings with the Saudis and UAE is the puzzle piece that finally brings the big picture into focus. As Trump's unlikely 2016 campaign drew closer to the White House, it triggered a mad dash to sell American foreign policy to the highest bidder — and some of the world's worst autocrats stepped up to the plate. What happened next is arguably tantamount to treason. What is beginning to take shape is the outlines of a scandal that threatens to be worse than Watergate on a massive scale, that would make Richard Nixon's crimes truly seem like "a third-rate burglary" in comparison.
A shadowy network of computer hackers in Eastern Europe and experts in psywar techniques used illegal methods — including voter suppression aimed at African Americans — to essentially steal a U.S. presidential election decided by a mere 100,000 or so votes in a few key states. Meanwhile, the foreign countries that backed this enterprise and their billionaire allies also found myriad ways to financially support America's new ruling junta — dangling real estate deals, hiring Trump allies, booking big parties at Trump hotels, giving millions to Trump's inauguration that no one can now account for — in ways that have built a bonfire out of the Emoluments Clause of the U.S. Constitution.
And here's the worst part: The sudden trashing of long-standing American policy objectives — like the Iran deal or delaying any move of the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem until a true Israel-Palestinian peace deal — risks war on large scale. People could die in the name of keeping 666 Fifth Ave. and the Trump Organization afloat. Arguably, some already are.
The scope of the Trump-Kushner foreign policy auction is so vast that it would take a whole book to cover, and indeed several have been written. But it helps to break down the outlines of a conspiracy into three simple components. In each of these areas, the accumulating evidence has grown from a whisper to a scream over the last two years.
Part 1: The Art of the Steal: With the GOP nominee behind in the polls for much of 2016, Team Trump seemed willing to listen to offers of help from any and all comers, morality or election laws notwithstanding. In June 2016, having secured the nomination, Don Jr. gladly convened a Trump Tower confab with Russians who claimed to have dirt on Clinton. It didn't produce any overt deal on collusion because it didn't need to. Just days after Team Putin learned that Trump's people were open to help and wouldn't rat them out to the FBI, the flow of illegally hacked Democratic documents — the 21st-century version of breaking-and-entering at the Watergate — began.
Now we know that Nader, on behalf of Saudi and UAE princes, came to Trump Tower about six weeks later with a similar deal. We don't know to what extent, if any, that the Israeli ex-spy Zamel's firm called Psy-Group — whose motto is "shape reality" — helped Trump. But it's well known that Cambridge Analytica, owned by American hedge-fund billionaires Robert and Rebekah Mercer, was paid by the Trump campaign to do the same kind of psywar work. Just this week, whistleblower Christopher Wylie told a congressional committee that CA ran a voter-suppression effort aimed at convincing blacks to stay home on Nov. 8, 2016 — updating Selma for the digital age. Trump's subsequent victory may have been the greatest moment of "shap(ing) reality" in world history.
Part 2: Cashing in the Chips. Winning the presidency should have been its own reward, but that's not how the childish Gambinos now in charge of a global superpower conduct their family business. As noted above, Russian oligarchs tied to Putin funneled millions to the Trump inauguration and one firm backed by a pro-Putin billionaire hired the president's personal lawyer and "fixer" Michael Cohen, who was peddling his access to Trump all around Washington. You also have the curious activities of Nader (a peach of a fellow who's been convicted of both child porn and child sex-abuse charges in the past), who helped a key Trump fund-raiser, Elliott Broidy, win $200 million in UAE private security contracts. If Broidy's name sounds familiar, he's the guy who also funneled $1.6 million through fixer Cohen to win the silence of a possibly impregnated Playboy model. Broidy said he had an affair with the woman. Some speculate a different scenario. Whether wheeler-dealers like the Nader-linked, UAE-funded Broidy were backing high-ranking people in the same fashion that Cohen paid off Trump mistress Stormy Daniels should be fertile ground for special counsel Robert Mueller.
As long as Trump and Jared Kushner continue to hold onto their business holdings while leading U.S. foreign policy, this cloud will remain. Did Trump voice support last week for ending American sanctions on the Chinese telecom company ZTE Corp. because it would benefit their U.S. subcontractors, or because a Chinese fund is investing $500 million in an Indonesia theme park that should dramatically boost the value of a related Trump Organization development? Then there's the matter of Qatar, because in recent months it has become clear that the Gulf state is again in the Trump administration's good graces, and the strategic alliance has been renewed as if last spring's blowup never happened. Is that because it's a more sensible policy — or is it because a firm called Brookfield Asset Management that is backed heavily by Qatari funds is near a deal to bail out Kushner's 666 Fifth Ave? Is it any wonder that so many longtime key allies of the United States wonder if they can trust Trump's America?
Part 3:The Big Payback. It's impossible to dispute that these countries that made offers to help Trump win the election have continuously benefited in terms of policy — beginning as early as the summer of 2016, when Trump allies changed the GOP election platform to take a less confrontational stance toward Russia in its conflict with Ukraine. The determination not to impose new sanctions on Russia or, under great pressure, to announce largely toothless penalties — despite the clear-cut evidence that Russia meddled in our election — has been a continual storyline of the Trump presidency.
The revelations about possible Saudi and UAE meddling take things to a much higher level. The Trump administration has walked in lock-step with the Saudis and their dynamic, de facto leader Prince Mohammad bin Salman ("MBS"), supporting the young prince's so-called reform agenda that's involved jailing and abusing his enemies as well as advocates for women's rights, 2017's move on Qatar, and his brutal military campaign in Yemen, which has caused massive civilian casualties. People are dying because of policy decisions that are tainted by Trump corruption, and it may be getting worse. The anti-Iran agenda of the Saudis, UAE and Israel (which has close personal and business ties with Kushner) has hovered over Trump's killing of the Iran nuclear deal, which not only makes it more likely that Iran will get the bomb more quickly but has dramatically ratcheted up tensions in the powder keg region.
It never should have gotten to this point. The political pundits are still busy debating whether Trump impeachment is a good fall political strategy for the Democrats or a losing hand. But things have already moved way beyond that. If we're at the point where we can tolerate soliciting foreign governments for help in a presidential election, using stolen data, reality-bending psychological warfare and voter suppression of blacks to win, a president and his son-in-law senior adviser profiting from deals while sitting in the White House, slush funds to pay off mistresses and God knows what else, and then making life-or-death decisions based on all of these utterly corrupt things, then the United States is not a country anymore. How much worse does the worst political scandal in American history have to get before the people who actually can do something wake up and do something?
Note: An earlier version misrepresented the legal case surrounding Trump fundraiser Elliott Broidy. He pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor in 2009 after cooperating as a witness in a bribery investigation.