As hard as it is to resist writing about the fact that on Tuesday the president of the United States called the adult film actress to whom he paid hush money “Horseface,” I want to focus on a different aspect of this presidency that we’re seeing play out right now.
As the apparent murder of Saudi journalist and Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi complicates our relations with Saudi Arabia, we have to ask what the implications are of having a fully transactional presidency, one not just built on “deals” but where policy is determined by what is financially beneficial to the president.
We should begin by reminding ourselves that as awful as Khashoggi’s apparent murder is, it’s only the latest in a long list of Saudi abuses that administrations both Democratic and Republican have chosen to overlook for decades. The country is a cruel dictatorship that embodies none of the values we as a nation hold dear, such as democracy, freedom of expression, freedom of the press and freedom of religion. But we decided long ago that since the Saudis have a great deal of oil and they provide us with a strategic ally in the Middle East, we’ll overlook all that.
There is something unsettling about the fact that Saudi intervention in Yemen’s civil war, in which they have reportedly killed thousands of civilians, has received steady U.S. support, while the murder of a single journalist threatens to upend the relationship between the two countries.
Or so you might think. But here’s the reality: This will blow over, not only because of the complex relationship between the two countries, but also because everything in foreign policy is personal with President Trump, and he likes the Saudis.
And why does he like them so much? Because they pay him.
This is not something Trump has been shy about saying. “Saudi Arabia, I get along with all of them. They buy apartments from me. They spend $40 million, $50 million,” he said at a rally in Alabama in 2015. “Am I supposed to dislike them? I like them very much.”
Trump says so many shocking things that it’s sometimes easy to slide right past the most appalling ones, but read that again. Here you have a candidate for president of the United States saying that he is favorably disposed toward a foreign country because they have given him millions of dollars, and all but promising to shape American foreign policy in their favor for that very reason.
“Am I supposed to dislike them?” he asks. How could I possibly dislike them when they pay me?
Business from Saudi-connected customers continued to be important after Trump won the presidency. Saudi lobbyists spent $270,000 last year to reserve rooms at Trump’s hotel in Washington. Just this year, Trump’s hotels in New York and Chicago reported significant upticks in bookings from Saudi visitors.
This is precisely the reason the framers of the Constitution added a provision saying that neither the president nor other officials could “accept of any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince, or foreign State.” If a foreign country is putting money in the president’s pocket on an ongoing basis, how in the world can we trust that the decisions he makes will be based on the best interests of the United States and not on his bank account?
This is of more concern with Trump than with any other president in American history. His entire life has been devoted to the accumulation of wealth, as though there were no other goal anyone should consider seeking (“My whole life I’ve been greedy, greedy, greedy. I’ve grabbed all the money I could get. I’m so greedy,” he has said). He made sure that upon assuming office his businesses would continue to operate and continue to provide avenues for those wishing to further enrich him to do so. And he refuses to release his tax returns, so we have no idea exactly how much money he’s getting and from whom.
But Tuesday, Trump tweeted this:
This is the same claim Trump has made with regard to Russia, and it’s the same dodge. The point isn’t whether Trump has interests in Saudi Arabia, it’s whether Saudi Arabia has interests in him. And just as is the case with Russia, they do.
If you’re the Saudis, the nice thing about Trump is that he lacks any subtlety whatsoever, so you don’t have to wonder how to approach him. He has said explicitly that the way to win his favor is to give him money. He has established means for you to do so — buying Trump properties and staying in Trump hotels. And with his combination of narcissism and insecurity, if you invite him to your country and give him a gold medal, he’ll forever be your friend.
Every president has to balance the desire to honor U.S. values with more crass interests such as whether a country will buy weapons from us, which Trump also cited as a reason we shouldn’t punish Saudi Arabia for Jamal Khashoggi’s murder (even though they aren’t actually buying what Trump claims). But only Trump apparently gets direct and significant payoffs from other countries, and only Trump is so clear that if you pay him he’ll do what you want. That may not have changed the American stance toward Saudi Arabia too much yet, but we have no idea what’s to come.