WASHINGTON ― As President Donald Trump defends maintaining close ties to Saudi Arabia, he has repeatedly exaggerated ― by 700 percent ― the value of U.S. weapon sales to Riyadh, yet he has not mentioned the amount of money Saudis have put into his own pocket.
From the first days that Saudi involvement in the disappearance of U.S. resident and journalist Jamal Khashoggi became clear, Trump has attempted to downplay it based on pending arms sales to the kingdom: “$110 billion worth of military,” he said again Thursday. “Those are the biggest orders in the history of this country, probably the history of the world.”
That number, though, is nowhere near accurate. In reality, only $14.5 billion in weapon sales have been approved by the Trump administration and Congress. The remainder is largely aspirational and years away from fruition.
What Trump does not talk about is a different potential explanation for his repeated defenses of Saudi King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman: The many tens of millions of dollars the royal family and its friends and allies have spent on Trump condominiums and at Trump hotels.
“This is a case where conflicts of interest can kill,” said Walter Shaub, who resigned as director of the Office of Government Ethics after Trump and White House officials refused to accept his guidance. “The autocrats of the world are watching what the United States does next.”
Shaub said that if Saudi Arabia’s ruling family can get away with the alleged murder of a Virginia-based journalist for a major American newspaper for the relatively small price of soliciting Trump properties, other dictators would see it as a green light.
“If nothing happens, what’s next? An American citizen gets murdered abroad? Dissidents in exile get killed on American soil?” Shaub wondered.
If nothing happens, what’s next? An American citizen gets murdered abroad? Dissidents in exile get killed on American soil? Walter Shaub, former government ethics director
The White House on Wednesday referred HuffPost’s queries about Trump’s personal profits from Saudi leaders to the Trump Organization, his closely held family business. A spokeswoman there did not respond to emails and phone calls, but a National Security Council spokesperson said there was no link between Trump’s business interests and actions in the Khashoggi case.
Trump appeared to try to head off suggestions his personal financial interests are influencing him with a Monday Twitter post: “For the record, I have no financial interests in Saudi Arabia (or Russia, for that matter). Any suggestion that I have is just more FAKE NEWS (of which there is plenty)!”
But that statement ignores the bigger question of how much Saudis have invested in Trump, Shaub said, adding that evidence suggests the answer is quite a bit.
From the sale of his 291-foot yacht to a Saudi prince in 1991, when Trump was facing personal bankruptcy, to the sale of the entire 45th floor of one of his New York City buildings to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to the hosting of large entourages of Saudis at his hotels in New York and Chicago over the past year, Shaub said, Trump has more than an incidental relationship with the country and its leaders.
“They’re clearly a valued customer of his,” Shaub said. “Possibly his most valued customer.”
“It was a bald-faced lie even by Trump’s standards,” said Ned Price, a former CIA analyst and a National Security Council spokesman under President Barack Obama. “Further, he’s even been clear that this massive income colors how he thinks of the country, asking rhetorically ‘why wouldn’t’ he like the Saudis, given how much money they direct his way.”
Tim O’Brien, the author of a 2005 book about Trump’s finances and wealth who on Wednesday published a detailed recitation of Trump’s Saudi connections, said it is clear why Trump wants to protect the Saudi royal family, and it has nothing to do with arms sales.
“I think he’s loyal to them because he cares about them as a business opportunity,” O’Brien said. “And he doesn’t care at all about human rights abuses or murdering journalists.”
How much money Trump is personally making from the Saudi government and Saudi nationals cannot be known with precision because Trump has refused to release his tax returns ― even though he once promised he would. His failure to do so broke established precedent followed by every major candidate since the Watergate era.
Shaub said those tax filings would let Americans see who is buying his properties, who is leasing his name, how much they are paying him, who his business partners are for various projects and how much they are investing, among many other details.
None of that information is divulged in the cursory financial disclosure form Trump files annually, Shaub said. “The disclosure form was never intended to cover this situation.”
Multiple reports in the past day say that Turkish officials have audio of Khashoggi being tortured, murdered and dismembered, all within a few minutes of entering the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2 to retrieve some documents. An earlier Washington Post report found that a team of 15 Saudi agents, including an autopsy specialist, arrived in Istanbul in the days preceding Khashoggi’s visit.
Despite the accumulating public reports, Trump has appeared to be more interested in protecting Salman and his son than uncovering the truth about Khashoggi. Trump has repeatedly pointed out that Khashoggi did not have U.S. citizenship and that, even if he was murdered, it did not happen in the United States. Trump told reporters Monday that both the king and the crown prince had denied their involvement “very strongly” ― the same basis Trump has used for defending men accused of sexual misconduct, from Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore to just-confirmed Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. Trump even invented an explanation that Khashoggi may have been murdered by “rogue killers.”
On Tuesday, in an interview with The Associated Press, Trump said the coverage of Khashoggi’s disappearance was again a case of being presumed “guilty until proven innocent” ― another argument Trump made in support of Kavanaugh, who faced accusations of sexual assault and sexual misconduct but who was confirmed anyway.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, ostensibly dispatched to Saudi Arabia to get to the bottom of Khashoggi’s disappearance, was instead photographed laughing and smiling during his meeting with Mohammed bin Salman. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert, meanwhile, posted a photo of herself on social media enjoying her visit to the royal court in Riyadh.
“We have the objective fact that the president and the secretary of state are behaving very strangely,” Shaub said. “All of this is deeply concerning.”