On Oct. 20, Saudi Arabia issued a statement on the death of Jamal Khashoggi, a dissident journalist who had walked into the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2 and never walked out. The Saudis claimed that Khashoggi had somehow died in a “fistfight,” apparently involving 18 suspects. It was the latest in an ever-changing series of absurd tales told by the regime. But when President Donald Trump was asked whether he found the statement credible, he replied, “I do.”
Trump’s answer seemed ridiculous. But in context, it made sense. He was sitting at a table full of defense-industry executives. Most of them were counting on a Saudi arms deal he had signed the previous year. “Probably the people around this table have the vast percentage of the $110 billion order from Saudi,” said Trump. “Almost 100 percent of it would be sitting right around this table.” Trump gestured to Dennis Muilenburg, the CEO of Boeing, and Marillyn Hewson, the CEO of Lockheed Martin. He pleaded, “I don’t want to look over and tell Marillyn or Dennis, ‘By the way, we’re going to take $25 billion worth of sales away from you.’ ”
That’s why Trump talks like a Saudi puppet: He is one. He has reduced the United States from the leader of the free world to an obsequious vendor. He made a sale to a rich client, and he’s afraid to lose it.
Trump came into office with no experience in public office or the military. He ran a company, so he treats the United States like a company. His foreign policy is about making money. In Iraq, it’s “take the oil.” In Japan and South Korea, it’s pay us more, or we’ll stop protecting you. In Europe, it’s pony up more for NATO. Trump sees Western European countries not as political or military allies but as economic enemies.
When President Barack Obama met with Saudi leaders, he talked about many issues: counterterrorism, ISIS, Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Libya, and Iran. He also brought up “universal human rights.” But when Trump went to Saudi Arabia in May 2017, he sidelined those issues. In his prepared remarks, he espoused a “principled realism” under which “our friends will never question our support.” “We are not here to lecture,” said Trump. “We must seek partners, not perfection.”
To Trump, the trip to Riyadh was all about the money. He sat in a chair next to the Saudi monarch, King Salman, and watched as executives from defense contractors and other American corporations paraded to center stage to receive elegantly bound contracts from Saudi leaders. The grotesque ceremony featured CEOs and senior executives from Alcoa, Boeing, Cisco, Dow Chemical, Exxon Mobil, General Dynamics, General Electric, Halliburton, Honeywell, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, and 16 other companies.
A year later, when Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman visited the White House, Trump couldn’t stop talking about money. He held up posters that showed how many billions of dollars he had racked up in “sales to Saudi Arabia”—and how many jobs these deals would produce “in key states.” The crown prince had to remind Trump that Saudi Arabia was also an ally. At a Cabinet meeting later that day, Trump boasted, “Saudi Arabia is a very wealthy nation, and they’re going to give the United States some of that wealth, hopefully, in the form of jobs, in the form of the purchase of the finest military equipment.”
That’s why Trump bends over backward to excuse the Saudi government in Khashoggi’s death. The Saudis’ ever-changing alibis aren’t credible, but Trump says they are. The Saudis have dragged their heels in disclosing what happened, but Trump praises their speed. Trump has also touted an alternative theory of “rogue killers” and has suggested that audio evidence of the murder—which CIA Director Gina Haspel has now heard—might be fictional. When he’s asked whether Saudi Arabia’s human rights violations were overlooked, he changes the subject to Iran’s violations. In an interview with the Associated Press, Trump complained that the Saudi regime was being treated as “guilty until proven innocent. I don’t like that. We just went through that with Justice Kavanaugh. And he was innocent all the way.”
Trump is afraid he might lose the Saudi contracts. Reporters don’t even have to bring them up. Since Khashoggi disappeared, Trump has started every discussion about the dissident journalist by insisting that America mustn’t cut off or risk losing the arms sales. “When we take away $110 billion of purchases from our country, that hurts our workers, that hurts our factories, that hurts all of our companies,” Trump pleaded at the White House on Oct. 13. “We’re really hurting our country a lot more than we’re hurting Saudi Arabia. They’ll go to Russia. They’ll go to China.”
Republican senators argue that the arms sales help Saudi Arabia fight terrorism, contain Iran, and limit civilian casualties in Yemen by improving airstrike precision. But Trump doesn’t make those arguments, because they aren’t about money. In an interview with Fox News on Oct. 11, he described defense as just another industry: “We have a country that’s probably doing better economically than it’s ever done before. A part of that is what we’re doing with our defense systems, and everybody’s wanting them.” When Trump is asked about Saudi Arabia’s reliability as a partner or ally, he changes the subject to its role as an arms purchaser.
Trump is blunt about his transactional relationship with Riyadh. Speaking to reporters on Oct. 13, he said he chose Saudi Arabia as his first presidential destination not for strategic reasons, but “because no other country is going to be investing $450 billion.” “I worked very hard to get the order for the military,” said Trump. “Russia and China wanted it very badly. I got 100 percent, almost 100 percent, of their order.” At the defense industry roundtable, he bragged that he had bargained with the Saudis, telling them, “I want you to order a tremendous amount of stuff.”
When Trump talks about the contracts involved in the deal, he doesn’t talk about the weapons or how they’ll be used. He talks about the companies: “Raytheon and General Electric and General Motors—they were there getting contracts for $25 billion, $30 billion, $40 billion. Nobody has ever seen anything like it.” He talks about states that will benefit from the deal: “Texas has a big chunk of it,” he says, and “almost every state in the union is affected, because it’s the largest order ever given.” He keeps inflating the number of jobs the deal will create. First he said it was 40,000. Then it became 450,000. Then 600,000. Then a million.
Trump is exaggerating the payoff. But financially, he’s making the smart play. By looking the other way while the Saudis murder Khashoggi and cover it up, he’s protecting corporate profits and jobs in key electoral states. The only price, aside from a man’s life, is our soul. At a White House meeting two weeks ago, Trump pleaded that he didn’t want to cancel the arms sales to Riyadh but insisted, “There are other things we can do that will be very severe.” When reporters asked him for an example, he drew a blank. He turned to Sen. James Lankford and asked, “James, do you have any suggestions?”
That’s what happens when you reduce your foreign policy to commerce. You think you’re putting America first. But what you’re really putting first is money. And if the money isn’t yours, then you’re not the owner. You’re the owned.