As political pressure builds over the killing and dismemberment of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the hands of the Saudi state, President Trump has continued to shine an unwelcome spotlight on U.S. weapons manufacturers as he seeks to justify an increasingly controversial U.S.-Saudi military alliance.
Near the top of an official White House statement that started with the lines “America First!” and “The world is a very dangerous place!," Trump named specific U.S. defense contractors as beneficiaries of a $110 billion arms deal that followed his highly public visit to the kingdom last year. (Analysts have disputed that number.)
The statement closely followed a Washington Post report that the CIA had concluded that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered the assassination of Khashoggi, a U.S. resident and Washington Post contributing columnist, contradicting the Saudi government’s earlier claims.
While the president’s statement noted that the “crime against Jamal Khashoggi was a terrible one,” it was focused primarily on the economic benefits of Saudi defense spending, as well as Iran’s role in supporting terrorists.
“This is a record amount of money. It will create hundreds of thousands of jobs, tremendous economic development, and much additional wealth for the United States," the president wrote Tuesday. "Of the $450 billion, $110 billion will be spent on the purchase of military equipment from Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon and many other great U.S. defense contractors. If we foolishly cancel these contracts, Russia and China would be the enormous beneficiaries.”
It was not the first time the president has brought up arms sales in the context of Khashoggi’s killing. He named the same three companies in an October interview on CBS’s “60 Minutes," saying, “I don’t want to lose an order like that.”
Those presidential mentions have been met with consternation across the defense industry, with representatives from prominent manufacturers and trade associations preferring to stay silent. In a little over a month, Saudi business has been transformed from a badge of honor to an untouchable conversation-stopper for U.S. defense contractors.
Andrew Hunter, a former Defense Department official who is now a senior fellow specializing in procurement issues at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said he thought the defense industry “would very much like to not be put in the center of this debate.”
“These sales are critical to their overall business plans, but it is incredibly awkward to be in put in a position where the interests of the companies are competing against issues of human rights and basic justice, especially where there’s a U.S. resident involved,” he said. “That is not where they want to be.”
Defense industry executives, analysts, consultants and lobbyists contacted by The Post — most of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity because they thought publicly discussing the issue would be bad for business — said the president’s repeated references to defense industry job creation in the context of Khashoggi’s killing have not been helpful.
Trump’s comments put the defense industry “in a very, very difficult situation,” a longtime defense industry consultant said. Those who work for defense contractors “are responsible Americans, and they don’t want to be associated with a situation like we’re seeing in Saudi Arabia.”
A spokeswoman from the National Defense Industrial Association declined to comment Tuesday, and a spokeswoman for the Aerospace Industries Association referred reporters to an earlier statement that said it will “continue to look to the government for direction on how best to support [national security] goals.”
Defense executives have told investors they will honor existing Saudi contracts and defer to the U.S. government regarding arms sales to the kingdom, without mentioning Khashoggi’s killing publicly. Raytheon chief executive Thomas Kennedy, for example, said in a call with investors that his company has consistently weathered different “periods of uncertainty” in Saudi Arabia over the past 50 years by remaining “locked in step behind” the U.S. administration.
Executives say they have long considered the risk that the Saudi regime’s poor human rights record could become a problem for the U.S. defense industry but are waiting to see how the situation plays out before publicly broadcasting their intentions.
Defense lobbyists are closely watching Congress, where a bipartisan group of lawmakers is hoping to curtail sales to Saudi Arabia in response to Khashoggi’s killing. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) has repeatedly sought to cut off weapons sales. Last year, he and his allies were four votes short, and he vowed to fight the next deal that comes before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
“The President indicates that Saudi Arabia is the lesser of two evils compared to Iran and so the U.S. won’t punish Saudi Arabia for the brutal killing and dismemberment of a dissident journalist in their consulate. I disagree,” Paul wrote on Twitter, vowing to continue pressing for legislation that would stop arms sales to the nation. “We should, at the very least NOT reward Saudi Arabia with our sophisticated armaments that they in turn use to bomb civilians.”
One executive said defense contractors are waiting to see whether the crown prince will be replaced before determining a course of action.
U.S. defense contractors “are really in a duck-and-cover mode, hoping to tie themselves to this as little as possible,” said a prominent defense executive. “To say that we’re going to support this because we have a few thousand jobs at stake ... we don’t want that," the executive said.