The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Whose interests is Trump looking out for in Saudi Arabia?

Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi, Saudi King Salman, U.S. first lady Melania Trump and President Trump visit the Global Center for Combating Extremist Ideology in May 2017 in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. (Saudi Press Agency via AP)
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The Post’s Philip Bump writes: “The question of whether [President] Trump has financial interests has risen to prominence in recent weeks as questions about the disappearance of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi emerged. … Are there business ties we don’t know about? Trump assures us that there are not — or, at least, that there are none in Saudi Arabia.”

That phrasing by Trump is not even subtle; it’s a glaring dodge around the real issue, which is the extent to which the president and his son-in-law Jared Kushner directly benefit from Saudi money. The issue goes to the heart of questions about Trump’s loyalty to the United States’ interests over his own and whether he is in violation of constitutional provisions designed specifically to prevent foreign manipulation of our government and its policies.

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The Post previously reported:

Trump’s business relationships with the Saudi government — and rich Saudi business executives — go back to at least the 1990s. In Trump’s hard times, a Saudi prince bought a superyacht and hotel from him. The Saudi government paid him $4.5 million for an apartment near the United Nations.
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.

Reports also circulated this year that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bragged that he had Kushner “in his pocket.” Whether he was referring to financial influence, or simply the ability to charm and manipulate the novice diplomat, is not clear.

This situation — fear of foreign manipulation of executive branch officials — is precisely what led the Founders to craft the foreign emoluments clause. Constitutional scholar Laurence Tribe tells me, “The tortured and lackluster response of the Trump administration to the Saudi kidnapping, torture, and [apparent] murder in Istanbul of Jamal Khashoggi, a permanent American resident who was a longtime critic of the Saudi rulers and their policies but was a Saudi patriot even as he wrote for The Washington Post … cannot be persuasively explained by any meaningful economic or national security benefit to the United States.” He explains, “On the contrary, the only plausible explanation of our shamefully weak response is the way the Saudi Royal Family and the government it constitutes has been and remains a rich source of unconstitutional Foreign Emoluments to President Trump personally and to his barely American version of a ‘royal’ family.” He continues: “The point of the Foreign emoluments clause was to eliminate even the suspicion that our leaders are governing and shaping U.S. policy on behalf of foreign princes and powers rather than on behalf of the American people. No proof of quid pro quo bribery, independently an impeachable offense, is needed. In this instance, sadly, even such proof might not be too hard for a Democratic House of Representatives to unearth.”

There are multiple lawsuits seeking to uncover and eliminate Trump’s receipt of foreign monies. Norman Eisen, of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), is leading the effort in two lawsuits, one brought by CREW and private parties and the other by the state of Maryland and the District of Columbia. Eisen tells me that “my colleagues and I have warned since Trump announced he would keep his businesses that doing so would violate the constitutional prohibition on ’emoluments’ from foreign governments — and create devastating conflicts of interests.” He points out that “we now have the latest of many examples with the president’s handling of the Khashoggi matter.” He notes that Trump’s past dealings with the Saudis, including ongoing money from his hotels, give us reason to wonder whether “his outrageously inadequate response is the result of these Saudi emoluments.” He argues that Trump “has behaved like a patsy, not an American president. All the more reason that we must get to the bottom of Saudi and other emoluments, and we intend to probe them in our litigation.”

If Democrats take the House, matters become much easier. The relevant committee can subpoena all documents (including tax returns) evidencing monies from state actors. The House — which has never officially approved Trump’s emoluments as spelled out in the Constitution — can vote to disallow them. In the meantime, the transformation of the United States from a constitutional republic to a Third World potentate continues — until the voters or the courts say otherwise.