WASHINGTON ― A self-proclaimed master of hawking condos, golf course memberships, steaks, ties, vodka and dubious real estate courses, Donald Trump has over a year and a half in the presidency enthusiastically taken on a new role: arms dealer-in-chief.
In speech after speech, joint appearance with a foreign leader after joint appearance, Trump brags about the quality of U.S. military hardware and how great it is that other countries are buying it. “Everybody wants to buy our equipment,” Trump said following this summer’s NATO summit in Brussels. “So we are helping some of those countries get online and buy the best equipment.”
On Thursday, Trump was asked during an Oval Office photo opportunity if Saudi Arabia’s possible involvement in the disappearance and potential murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi ― a permanent resident of the United States ― should result in a cancellation of planned arms sales to that country. Trump said it should not.
“What good does that do us? There are other things we can do,” he said. “Again, this took place in Turkey, and to the best of our knowledge, Khashoggi is not a United States citizen.”
He added that he doesn’t like what appears to have happened “even a little bit,” but said he does not want to stop the weaponry sales.
“As to whether or not we should stop $110 billion from being spent in this country, knowing they have four or five alternatives, two very good alternatives, that would not be acceptable to me,” he said.
President Dwight Eisenhower warned America about the “military-industrial complex.” Six decades later, fellow Republican Trump revels in it.
“Dwight D. Eisenhower is turning over in his grave, listening to Trump’s chest-pounding about selling military hardware,” said Rice University presidential historian Douglas Brinkley.
Eisenhower, elected eight years after he had led the allied invasion of Nazi-occupied Europe, offered his warning in his farewell address in 1961 about the danger of such close ties between the defense industry, Congress and the Pentagon. Trump, who avoided military service with education deferments and by claiming bone spurs on his heels, does not appear to see any problem with them.
They’re weapons of destruction, but to him, it’s selling merchandise. It could be selling canned beans and sugar. He just doesn’t see the difference. Douglas Brinkley, Rice University presidential historian
In a Sept. 18 news conference with Polish president Andrzej Duda, Trump thanked him for being a customer. “I’m proud to report that Poland has recently purchased a state-of-the-art Patriot missile system, which is a great system,” Trump said at the White House. “We make the greatest military equipment by far, anywhere in the world. And it’s made right here in the USA.”
The following week, at the United Nations General Assembly in New York, Trump spoke of leaning on Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to buy more American weaponry. “I said, ‘You have to do me a favor. We don’t want these big deficits. You’re going to have to buy more,’” he said. “They’re buying massive amounts of equipment and military equipment, and other countries are doing the same thing.”
The U.S. government has been brokering and encouraging arms sales since the founding of the country. It became a major element of foreign policy following World War II, but it has typically been handled quietly by presidents and their administrations.
Brinkley, who edited the diaries of Ronald Reagan, said mentions of arms sales were all redacted by intelligence officials as part of their pre-publication review, to avoid problems that publicity could cause.
Trump, in contrast, does not appear to care.
“They’re weapons of destruction, but to him, it’s selling merchandise. It could be selling canned beans and sugar. He just doesn’t see the difference,” Brinkley said, adding that Trump’s approach is also putting out a clear message to other nations: “If you buy military hardware form the United States, you get bonus points with us.”
During a March 20 Oval Office visit by Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Trump even had visual aids to show off how many planes, ships and tanks Saudi Arabia was buying from the U.S.
“In terms of dollars, $3 billion, $533 million, $525 million ― that’s peanuts for you. You should have increased it; $880 million, $645 million, $6 billion ― that’s for frigates; $889 million, $63 million ― and that’s for various artillery,” Trump said. “The C-130 airplanes, the Hercules, great plane ― $3.8 billion; the Bradley Vehicles ― that’s the tanks ― $1.2 billion; and the P-8 Poseidons ― $1.4 billion. And what it does is it really means: many, many jobs.”
That Trump chose to make a public show of Saudi weapons purchases when that country is conducting a brutal war in neighboring Yemen that is resulting in thousands of civilian deaths could be even more problematic.
“You have massive, growing anti-American sentiment,” said Kate Kizer, with the Win Without War project.
She said Trump’s attitude on weapons sales generally and in the Arabian Peninsula in particular is hurting the bigger goal of reducing radicalism. “U.S. arms manufacturers love to print ‘Made in the U.S.A.’ on those weapons,” she said, adding that when those weapons kill innocent men, women and children in airstrikes, the survivors blame the U.S. “That undermines any role that this country could play in any peace process.”
“It’s such a short-term transactional mentality,” she said.
Ned Price, a former CIA analyst and spokesman for the National Security Council under President Barack Obama, said that administration had a different approach with Saudi Arabia. “We tried to get them focused on investing in capabilities that they actually needed ― like cyber, special ops, interdiction ― rather than the big-ticket airplanes, et cetera, that Trump so often trumpets,” he said.
“A bunch of airplanes do nothing to confront Iran or the other shared challenges we face in the Gulf or elsewhere,” Price added. “It does, however, make a splash, which Trump is always after, above all else.”
This article has been updated with Trump’s comments about Saudi Arabia from Thursday.