There is a lot to talk about since we last spoke. The US Air Force establishing air superiority over latex balloons. The special counsel’s subpoena of Mike Pence. The wanton hypocrisy of Ron DeSantis when it comes to firearms. The inability of the American people to recognize when an administration is accomplishing significant things on its behalf. George Santos cheating the Amish out of puppies. The death of the great Burt Bacharach. The horrific loss of life in Turkey and Syria. A chill Joe Biden making the GOP look like the clowns they are. An excellent Super Bowl. The ongoing fallout from the brutal murder of Tyre Nichols.
But this week I’d like to talk about a story that is getting precious little press, perhaps because it’s about a kind of criminality to which we’ve become sadly inured, and perhaps because its protagonist is a Florida retiree increasingly irrelevant to the national conversation.
Except that he still commands an army of millions of fanatic followers, and would like to install himself as autocrat-in-chief, again.
FOLLOW THE MONET
We all know that behind everything Donald Trump does there is always always always one motive: to make money. One might argue that that motive is a subset of a deeper one, which is to feed his gargantuan ego and assuage a lifelong, pathological, Marianas Trench-deep insecurity. But that is a topic for another day (and a conference of world class psychiatrists).
The quest for filthy lucre is why Trump ran for President, and was the driving force behind his every action while in office. The Watergate-era maxim “Follow the money”—the invention of All the President’s Men screenwriter William Goldman, actually—has never been truer. While president, Trump brazenly broke longstanding norms (and likely a few actual laws) by continuing to maintain vast business dealings at home and abroad that presented a massive conflict of interest for the chief executive. Even beyond that, he repeatedly conducted US policy in a way that allowed him to monetize the presidency, violating the emoluments clause (on the spurious claim that it doesn’t apply to the president) and basically treating the Oval Office like his own personal ATM, the same way he thought of the Attorney General as his personal lawyer, and the Pentagon as his own private Praetorian Guard.
But Michael Kranish of The Washington Post has a story out this week that tells a tale of Trumpian greed and exploitation of the public trust that goes beyond even what we have long known thus far.
It is widely known that when Trump left office he had massive legal expenses, at a time when the value of his properties and his brand had plummeted—rightly so on both counts. His beloved son-in-law Jared Kushner wasn’t doing much better: his last business venture had required a $1.2 billion bailout. (A Congressional investigation is currently looking into whether that bailout was partially financed by the government of Qatar.) Both men needed money—lots of it. Fortunately, they had cultivated a highly desirable benefactor while Donald was president.
The day after leaving the White House, Kushner created a company that he transformed months laterinto a private equity firm with $2 billion from a sovereign wealth fund chairedby Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Kushner’s firm structured those fundsin such a way that it did not have to disclose the source, according to previously unreported details of Securities and Exchange Commission forms reviewed by The Washington Post. His business used a commonly employed strategy that allows many equity firms to avoid transparency about funding sources, experts said.
A year after his presidency, Trump’s golf courses began hosting tournaments for the Saudi fund-backed LIV Golf. Separately, the former president’s family company, the Trump Organization,secured an agreement with a Saudi real estate company that plans to build a Trump hotel as part of a $4 billion golf resort in Oman.
Nice work if you can get it.
It’s impossible to avoid the conclusion that that cash cow was the direct result of a mutual back-scratching arrangement that Trump had deliberately built while in office, even as it compromised US national security interests, not to mention the quaint matter of moral turpitude.
As president, Trump had forged a tight alliance with the medieval theocrats of Riyadh, whose vile morals he shared and admired. (The Islamophobia that was a regular feature of Trump’s domestic demagoguery was no obstacle to the Saudi ruling family, who are experts in transactional behavior.) He enhanced Saudi prestige by making his first presidential trip to the kingdom—the famous glowing orb moment—rather than to a NATO ally as was traditional. He sold the Saudis technologically advanced US arms, over Congressional objections, including Raytheon precision-guided munitions, support for F-15 fighter planes, and the same Javelin missiles he held hostage from Ukraine. He endorsed the Saudi blockade of Qatar and looked the other way regarding their war in Yemen. Kranish writes that he even took a “hands-off policy when (Mohammed bin Salman) imprisoned an array of leading Saudi citizens for months in a high-end hotel, reportedly demanding billions in funds from some in exchange for their release.”
As his father-in-law’s intermediary, Kushner—whom Trump tapped to handle US affairs in the Middle East, despite being a callow punk without a shred of experience or qualifications for the job—was at the center of this relationship, personally developing close ties with the ambitious and homicidal MbS, one of the most hideous tyrants on Earth. The two princes, as they were dubbed, met repeatedly both in the US and Saudi, including one trip Jared made to the kingdom on the eve of the January 6th insurrection. Those frequent visits and contacts alarmed senior administration officials, especially as the issues the two men discussed were often not shared with them. In his recent memoir (steal it, if you must read), Kushner even boasts of convincing Trump to favor Saudi Arabia even as some of Trump’s top foreign policy advisers counseled against it.
Subsequent events have shown why Jared was so keen on becoming MbS’s bestie for self-serving reasons of his own that had nothing to do with Donald, except in that he made it possible. (Kranish reports that “It is not known whether Kushner discussed business deals with Mohammed while in office,” But it beggars belief that he did not—and even if he did not, it surely was implied.)
And now, as the post-presidency riyals from Riyadh flow into the Trump and Kushner coffers, Kranish reports that “some national security experts and two former White House officials say they have concerns that Trump and Kushner used their offices to set themselves up to profit from their relationship with the Saudis after the administration ended.”
Gee, ya think?
THE SOUND OF BONESAWS
Of course, the most glaring and reprehensible favor Trump and Kushner did for MbS was to defend him in the grisly, politically motivated murder of Washington Post opinion columnist Jamal Khashoggi.
In case you’ve forgotten, in October 2018 Khashoggi—a Saudi citizen, legal permanent resident of the US, and vocal critic of the Riyadh regime—was lured into his country’s embassy in Istanbul by Saudi agents, beaten to death, and then dismembered with a bonesaw. Even as US intelligence affirmed that the assassination was ordered by the crown prince and carried out by his henchmen, Trump shielded him from accountability both in the KSA—where the White House’s support helped keep him from being removed from power—and in the US, where Trump shielded him from criminal prosecution. Reportedly, Kushner even consulted with MbS over how to respond to the public outcry over the murder.
Later, Trump bragged to Bob Woodward about what he had done for the prince, as related in Woodward’s book Rage, and reported in Business Insider:
“I saved his ass,” Trump had said amid the US outcry following Khashoggi’s murder, the book says. “I was able to get Congress to leave him alone. I was able to get them to stop.” During his January 22 conversation with Woodward, the president said: “Well, I understand what you’re saying, and I’ve gotten involved very much. I know everything about the whole situation.” Trump added that Saudi Arabia spent billions of dollars on US products.
Kranish picks up the story:
Trump refused to endorsethe CIA’s conclusion, equivocated about Mohammed’s involvement, opposedreleasing of the report and vetoed a congressional bill to block arms sales to the kingdom. The president sent Mike Pompeo, who had replaced Tillerson as secretary of state, to meet with the prince and remind him of his debt. “My Mike, go and have a good time. Tell him he owes us,” Pompeo recalled in his 2023 memoir, “Never Give An Inch.”
This is the behavior of mobsters. (Note to Trump supporters: that’s not a compliment.)
In that recently released memoir, Pompeo—or “My Mike,” as Trump calls him—who is signaling that he’s going to run for president on the Republican ticket himself in 2024, called the outcry over Khashoggi’s murder “faux outrage.” Really doing West Point proud there, Mike.
But for once, Trump’s boast is correct, in its awful way. Kranish reports that Abdullah Alaoudh, the director for the Gulf at DAWN (Democracy for the Arab World Now), a group founded by Khashoggi, said “Without the absolute protection of Trump and Kushner, MbS would definitely have fallen.”
QUID PRO QUO
For all their efforts, the prince is clearly rewarding both men handsomely, in a case of one set of criminals helping another. MbS’s financial support of Trump is not only payback for services rendered, but also self-serving malfeasance in its own right, given the FBI’s assessment that “‘threat actors’ likely use private placement of funds, including investments offered by hedge funds and private equity firms, to launder money.’”
The $2 billion funneled to Jared is one thing. But as Kranish reports, “Information about Trump’s possible Saudi payments is even more opaque.”
Before his political career, Trump had longclaimed a profitable history of dealmaking with the Saudis. On the day he launched his campaign at Trump Tower in 2015, he said, “I love the Saudis. Many are in this building.” Later that year, he said at a campaign rally that “they spend $40 million, $50 million” buying his apartments. In August 2015, The Post reported, he established eight shell companies that included the name “Jeddah,” apparently referring to Saudi Arabia’s second-largest city, and four mentioned a hotel — but there’s no record that anything resulted….
And now this very same Donald Trump is running for the White House again. I dunno, should we worry that MbS is bankrolling a defeated and disgraced former US president who aspires to regaining his old job?
Among those criticizing this state of affairs is Trump’s former national security adviser John Bolton (the third of four, not even counting two “acting” ones), who is also running for president, on a ticket with his own mustache. “Why should Jared be worried about the Middle East?” Bolton is quoted as saying in the Post. “It’s a perfectly logical inference was that had something to do with business.”
And it’s not like they’re embarrassed about it. Kushner has the same experience running a private equity fund as he did being a Middle East envoy: zero. But Kranish reports that Jared “has made his work with Mohammed while in the White House a selling point for his business. In a presentation to investors, first reported by the Intercept, Kushner notes his work ‘managing Middle East peace efforts’ and specifically cites the result of his Jan. 5, 2021, meeting with Mohammed, saying they had discussed lifting the Qatar blockade.”
Of course this is just one of the ways Trump enriched himself at taxpayers’ expense while president. (The Old Post Office Pavilion that became a Trump hotel and de rigueur lodging place for visiting foreign dignitaries comes to mind, as does the massive bills he charged the US Secret Service for the privilege of protecting him.) But few examples are as shameless as this one, or involve such openly ghastly service to a murderous foreign regime—except maybe all the favors Trump did for Putin—one that brutalizes its own citizens at home (and even more harshly, its non-citizen residents) and sponsors aggression abroad, often at the expense of the US.
That, my friends, is exactly what the Founding Fathers, whom right wing America claims to revere, dreaded and tried their best to prevent. And now he wants to be put in a position where he can do it all again? Fool me once, as a wise Texan once said.
Since Khashoggi’s murder, DAWN has called for legislation prohibiting former US government officials from benefitting financially from arrangements with a foreign government. Admittedly it would be hard to define and to enforce, though as Kranish notes, retired US military personnel are already required “to obtain approval to work for foreign governments like Saudi Arabia.” Yet those ethics rules inexplicably stop short of top leadership.
(T)here’s no such requirement for a former commander in chief, nor for former senior White House officials such as Kushner, to disclose if they have financial ties to foreign governments, according to Don Fox, former acting director of the Office of Government Ethics. He said their work has exposed a glaring shortfall in ethics laws that needs to be fixed by Congress. “I think the Congress had a certain vision in mind for what the post-presidency looks like, such as creating a library and museum and some speaking and writing a memoir,” Fox said. “I don’t think it ever occurred to the drafters of these ethics laws that a former president would actually try to cash in on his years of office this way.”
“Meanwhile,” Kranish writes, “the financial benefits of the Saudi relationship with Trump and Kushner continue.
Trump is slated to hold three more LIV tournaments on his properties this year.
And Kushner reportedly has raised at least another $500 million for his company from international investors since he filed the SEC form last year, bringing the total to around $3 billion. He has not identified the source of that additional money.
Trump declined to comment for the Post piece, but his spokesman—Steven Cheung, who may or may not be a new pseudonym for John Barron—issued a statement saying, “President Trump is the most pro-America president in history and used his superior negotiating skills to ensure this country is never beholden to anyone.”
Res ipsa loquitur, as Hunter S. Thompson used to say.
BUT WHAT ABOUT WHATABOUTISM?
Now, it’s quite true that Trump’s fans will dismiss this scandal as much ado about nothing, scoffing that “Everyone does it.” It’s the same thing Nixon’s supporters said about his criminal behavior. So let’s dispense with that fiction tout suite.
Everyone does not do it.
Yes, cynics have argued that it is normal for veterans of presidential administrations—as well as Congress, and public life in general—to capitalize on connections they made while in government service. We all know there’s practically a revolving door between Washington, the lobbyists, and the industries they represent. But this arrangement goes way beyond that. This isn’t a business relationship that grew out of a political one; this was “statecraft” driven by and pursed solely in the interest of the personal financial gain of the First Family, and with a hostile foreign power that likes to masquerade as our friend to boot.
If Biden or Obama or Hillary had engaged in this behavior, MAGA Nation would have already set its collective hair on fire. As it is, these same people want us to believe in some mythical corruption involving Biden and China, but find no fault with anything Trump has done.
Actually, the target they immediately go for is Hunter, so let’s be clear and candid: there is no doubt that Hunter Biden traded on his father’s position when he was vice president in order to make lucrative business deals in Ukraine and China. That is unacceptable. Sketchy presidential family members are another American tradition, from Donald Nixon to Billy Carter to Billy Bush. But that makes it no more excusable.
But what Hunter Biden did was nowhere near on the magnitude of the Trump family machinations regarding the Saudis, and they weren’t facilitated by his father, let alone conducted in conjunction with him, or at his direction, as a coordinated plan to line their familial pockets. And even, for the sake of argument, if they hypothetically were, MAGA Nation is not at all upset when Trump and Kushner do something exponentially worse.
The second response from MAGA Nation—both in concert with the first and yet in contradiction of it—is that we should admire Trump for being so “savvy,” just like when he bragged about cheating on his taxes on national television during a presidential debate, claiming that it made him “smart.” (You know, the way we admire people who don’t pay their fair share for roads, and schools, and hospitals, and the military.)
No, it does not make him smart. It makes him corrupt.
THE ONCE AND FUTURE KING
The United States’ strategic partnership with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has always been problematic to say the least, and I can tell you that I observed it firsthand when deployed there during the 1991 Gulf war.
I refer you to 9/11, and the nationality of the key planners and 15 of the 19 hijackers themselves.
It was not great when Biden—who during his 2020 campaign said he would make the Saudis “the pariah that they are”—visited the kingdom last summer and fist-bumped MbS, or when his own DOJ subsequently declared the prince was not subject to a civil suit in Khashoggi’s murder because he was the sitting head of his government at the time. But what Trump might do in a second term as regards enabling the criminal behavior of the Saudi regime, in conjunction with his own, ought to send a chill down our national spine.
Some, like Andrew Exum, formerly a deputy assistant secretary of defense for Middle East policy under Barack Obama and a very smart and reasonable foreign policy thinker, have argued that Biden’s accommodation of Riyadh is advisable realpolitlk. I respectfully disagree. Pragmatism is all well and good, but it can easily become a rationalization for the abandonment of core principles. At the risk of stating the bleeding obvious, when the US gets in bed with monsters like the House of Saud, our credibility as the putative leader of the democratic world takes a severe hit. (Kinda like when we elect a cretinous Mussolini manqué like Donald Trump.) There are still moral lines the crossing of which compromises everything we claim to be, or aspire to, as a democracy. Making common cause with Stalin to defeat Hitler is one thing; cozying up to MbS in hopes of lower gas prices that never seem to go down is quite another.
You may say, “Oh, let it go, King’s Necktie. Why does any of this matter? This is Trump Derangement Syndrome! He’s been out of office for two years and you still can’t stop writing about him. And you make fun of conservatives who are still on about Hillary?”
A predictable complaint, but a false equivalence aimed at distracting from some very real facts.
I’ll stop writing about Trump when he stops insisting on being part of American public life—like Hillary. The man wants to run the country again, and we can be sure that if he succeeds, he will run it in a fascistic way that makes his first term look like a trip to Disneyland. So railing about his sleazy connections with the Saudis is very much in order. In all likelihood, Mohammed bin Salman will become king of Saudi Arabia when the current sovereign, King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, dies or steps down. If Trump manages to regain the presidency in 2024, they will be twinned heads of state, and Trump will be massively beholden to his Saudi benefactor.
But even if he weren’t running for president, this story is well worth writing about, because it is a story about our values as a nation, and what we admire and what we condemn, and what we demand from our leaders, or ought to.
Res ipsa loquitur.
Photo: Bandar Algaloud/Saudi Kingdom Council/Handout/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
Copy editing by the incomparable Gina Patacca