Leaders around the world have called for quick action in response to allegations that Saudi Arabia ordered and carried out the torture and killing of Washington Post contributing columnist and permanent U.S. resident Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey. And yet the president of the United States has defended the Saudi royal family, stressed the need for caution and process, and refused to consider curbing arms sales to Saudi Arabia.
President Trump’s subdued reaction raises the question of why he has, so far, handled the news so differently compared with other world leaders. We cannot help but consider one particular answer: that his approach to Saudi Arabia is influenced by his significant business dealings with that country.
Apparently aware of the growing concerns that conflicts of interest may be affecting his thinking on this crisis, the president tweeted this week that he has “no financial interests in Saudi Arabia.” That may be technically true. While he previously had significant interests in companies set up to potentially develop properties in Saudi Arabia, those companies were shut down when he assumed the presidency.
Crucially, though, he and his businesses have continued to benefit substantially from Saudi customers, including the government of Saudi Arabia. Press reports have indicated that the kingdom of Saudi Arabia has recently paid for rooms and meals at the Trump hotels in Washington and Chicago. In 2017, Saudi lobbyists spent $270,000 to reserve rooms at Trump’s hotel in Washington. The kingdom itself paid $4.5 million in 2001 to purchase a floor of Trump World Tower and continues to pay tens of thousands in annual common charges to Trump businesses for that property (the total of which could be up to $5.7 million since 2001, according to one estimate). In the past year, as bookings fell overall, Trump’s hotels in New York and Chicago reported a significant uptick in bookings from Saudi Arabia. And a major factor in a recent increase in revenue for the Trump International Hotel and Tower in Manhattan was that Saudis accompanying the crown prince during a recent visit stayed there, as The Washington Post has reported.
Trump said at a campaign rally in 2015 about Saudi Arabia: “I get along great with all of them. They buy apartments from me. They spend $40 million, $50 million. Am I supposed to dislike them? I like them very much.”
What’s notable about that statement is not just the president’s description of his significant business ties to Saudi Arabia but his stark admission that he is inclined to look favorably on those who give him business.
Now it appears that the government of Saudi Arabia was listening — it has brought significant business to the president these past two years, and its investment may well be paying off. Instead of condemning Saudi Arabia’s apparent involvement in Khashoggi’s death, Trump has been previewing potential defenses for the Saudi government. “It sounded to me like maybe these could have been rogue killers,” he said Monday, after a phone call with Saudi King Salman. “I mean, who knows? We’re going to try getting to the bottom of it very soon, but his was a flat denial. ”
Trump’s decisions about how to handle this delicate and crucial situation should never be influenced by his business interests. Sadly, we have every reason to believe they may be.
When the president decided to retain his business interests, my watchdog organization was particularly concerned that his personal financial interests and business ties could affect his decision-making on taxes, environmental regulations, foreign policy and a slew of other issues. That is why we have been deeply involved in two major lawsuits against Trump for violating the emoluments clauses of the Constitution, which prohibit any president from receiving gifts and payments from foreign and domestic governments. This past week has supplied the strongest evidence yet that our concerns were well founded.
At a time of global crisis like the one we find ourselves in currently, we need to know the president is looking out for our interests. Right now, we don’t.