The Slatest

Why Trump Is Playing the Tough Guy With the Saudis Now

Donald Trump walking with King Salman, with Ivanka Trump and Saudi officials in the background.
U.S. President Donald Trump walks with Saudi Arabia’s King Salman after receiving the Order of Abdulaziz Al Saud medal at the Saudi Royal Court in Riyadh on May 20, 2017.
Mandel Ngan/Getty Images

At a rally in Green Bay, Wisconsin, on Saturday, President Donald Trump went on a little riff about Saudi Arabia:

Saudi Arabia, very rich country. We defend them! We subsidize Saudi Arabia. They have nothing but cash, right? And they buy a lot from us. Four hundred fifty billion dollars, they bought. And you had people wanting to cut off Saudi Arabia. They bought $450 billion! I don’t want to lose them! But the military, we subsidize. Saudi Arabia! I called the king. I like the king. I said, “King, we’re losing our ass defending you, King, and you have a lot of money.” And he said, “Why would you be calling me? Nobody has ever made such a call before.” I said, “That’s ’cause they were stupid!”

Impressively, Trump is saying two things here that are both untrue and contradict each other. Saudi Arabia hasn’t really bought $450 billion (or $110 billion) from the U.S. And the U.S. is hardly “subsidizing” the Saudi military. More to the point, both those things can’t be true: The Saudis are either such valuable U.S. defense industry customers that it’s worth turning a blind eye when they bomb hospitals and dismember journalists, or they’re free riders who are ripping us off. Which is it?

Trump has told variations of this story before. In an October speech in Mississippi, he recounted to a rally crowd that he had recently told King Salman, “King, we’re protecting you. You might not be there for two weeks without us. You have to pay for your military, you have to pay.” He might have been referring to the same conversation on Saturday, though there has been some confusion about conversations between Trump and the Saudis in recent days.

Trump told reporters on Friday that he had “called up OPEC” to tell the organization to take action to bring down fuel prices, but officials at the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries said they had had no conversations with him. Trump then clarified in a tweet that he “spoke to Saudi Arabia and others about increasing oil flow.” This was also news to Saudi officials, one of whom told the Wall Street Journal that Trump “may have been referring to his frequent tweets calling on OPEC and Saudi Arabia to lower oil prices.” Trump did speak on the phone with Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman earlier this month, in a conversation the White House says focused on Iran and human rights issues. There haven’t been any media reports of conversations between Trump and King Salman since last year.

Trump’s willingness to criticize the Saudis often seems to rise in correlation with the price of a barrel of oil. Oil hit a six-month high last week after the Trump administration announced it would not extend sanctions waivers to several countries that purchase Iranian crude. Trump is calling on Saudi Arabia and other OPEC members to boost production to keep prices down, but there’s only so far the Saudis can go: Bloomberg reports today that, according to International Monetary Fund data, the kingdom needs oil prices around $85 a barrel to balance its budget.

As much as Trump wants to be tough on Iran (though there’s evidence to suggest he doesn’t care about this nearly as much as some of his advisers do), high fuel prices are never helpful for a president heading into an election year. Beyond economic considerations, the close Trump-Saudi relationship is also an opportunity for Democrats. Trump, who visited Saudi Arabia as his first foreign trip as president, recently used the second veto of his presidency to block a congressional resolution (co-sponsored by presidential candidate Bernie Sanders) that would have ended U.S. support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen. He also enthusiastically stood up for the Saudi royal family following the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, contradicting the findings of U.S. intelligence agencies that the crown prince was behind the killing.

But as much as Trump may like the Saudis, he knows this relationship isn’t all that popular. Americans have more unfavorable views of Saudi Arabia than of China or Cuba. Trump himself blasted Saudi Arabia’s human rights record when he was running for president and knows his election rivals are likely to do the same. Leading Democrats have said they plan to make Saudi Arabia an issue in 2020. We’ll likely hear more from Trump about his tough talk with his friend the king in the coming months, though it would be more effective if this tough talk made any sense.