— President Trump, remarks at the White House, Oct. 16
“We are sending troops and other things to the Middle East to help Saudi Arabia. But are you ready? Saudi Arabia, at my request, has agreed to pay us for everything we’re doing. That’s a first. But Saudi Arabia — and other countries, too, now — but Saudi Arabia has agreed to pay us for everything we’re doing to help them.”
— Trump, remarks to reporters, Oct. 11
“Then the president said, ‘Well, the reason I’m taking the troops out of Syria is because I promised them at campaign to bring the troops home.’ My question to him was, ‘Is Saudi Arabia home? Is Saudi Arabia home? Why are our troops going to Saudi Arabia if you promised to bring them home?’ He said, ‘Well, the Saudi Arabians are paying for it.’ Really, we’re putting our troops in harm’s way for Saudi Arabia because they’re paying — it just didn’t add up.”
— House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), recounting to reporters a conversation at the White House with Trump, Oct. 17
President Trump has a soft spot for Saudi Arabia. It’s where he took his first overseas trip as president. He also worked hard to rehabilitate on the world stage its de facto leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, after the CIA concluded he had ordered the 2018 assassination of Washington Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi.
The administration announced Oct. 11 that it was sending to Saudi Arabia an additional 3,000 troops, along with about four dozen Air Force fighters and Patriot antimissile batteries, in response to attacks on Saudi oil facilities that U.S. officials blame on Iran. “The United States is raising the costs of Iran’s revolutionary adventures while increasing incentives for pragmatism to prevail,” said Brian Hook, the State Department’s special representative for Iran.
What caught our attention is that the president claims that Saudi Arabia will pay all of the costs — “100 percent” — of the deployment, including “the cost of our soldiers.” Some critics have charged that Trump is turning U.S. troops into mercenaries, available to the highest bidder. Since the president has a long history of inflating what he has supposedly negotiated from Saudi Arabia, we thought we would investigate.
Notice that Trump claims he negotiated this deal in a “very short time — like, maybe, about 35 seconds.” In previous White Houses we have covered, such a stunning act of negotiation would be accompanied by readouts by presidential aides, eager to explain how such a coup came about.
But, in this case, just crickets from the White House, except for the bragging by the president himself. White House officials would not explain what Trump meant.
So, we checked with the Pentagon for more details on the supposed payment arrangement. Officials at the Defense Department deflected our inquiry, telling us to contact the State Department.
Hmmm, experience has taught us that this is a sign that any such deal is still under negotiation. Otherwise, the Pentagon would have been happy to discuss it.
Sure enough, we ended up with a carefully crafted statement from State that certainly reinforced that impression.
The core of the statement, attributed to a State Department spokesman, said: “While we will not comment on specific bilateral defense agreements, more broadly the United States encourages burden-sharing among partners in support of shared security interests, to include defense of the Arabian Gulf.”
Notice the “encourages burden-sharing” language. That certainly sounds like an aspiration, not a negotiated outcome. And the State Department won’t comment on a “specific bilateral defense agreement” even though the president is talking about it? That doesn’t make much sense.
We checked with the relevant committees in the House and the Senate — Armed Services, Foreign Affairs and Appropriations — and none could report an understanding of the president’s claim. The Saudi Embassy did not respond with an explanation, either.
When NBC News reported in July that U.S. troops were being dispatched to Prince Sultan Air Base, it quoted unnamed U.S. officials as saying that “Saudi Arabia has already agreed to pay some of the costs associated with having U.S. personnel and assets there.”
“Some” is clearly less than 100 percent.
Neither the Pentagon nor the State Department would comment on that language, each telling The Fact Checker to discuss it with the other agency.
But if that’s the case, it would make sense, because that has been the arrangement in the past.
“When the military first moved to Prince Sultan Air Base in 1996 after Khobar, I helped negotiate the deal,” said Bruce Riedel, a former CIA official who is now at the Brookings Institution, referring to the Khobar Towers bombing. “The Saudis agreed to pay for building barracks and other infrastructure for the base, which was their property of course, but made the necessary accommodation suitable for the U.S. Air Force, RAF [Britain’s Royal Air Force] and French aircrews. They did not reimburse any expenses.”
Riedel added: “It is significant that the Pentagon won’t say.”
Anthony H. Cordesman, the Arleigh A. Burke chair in strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said: “There is no formal definition of ‘burden-sharing,’ and it can include providing facilities and services to the U.S. for free or at a discount, buying arms, barter deals, and direct or indirect cash transfers. There also is no standard reporting or audit requirement, and some programs are classified. Accordingly, the president can say just about anything — as he does in exaggerating U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia.”
But he noted that the Saudi government paid for a large part of U.S. operations in the 1990-1991 Persian Gulf War. “It also often pays late but sometimes pays in advance,” he said. “It also may be so concerned about the increasing tendency of the U.S. to withdraw or fail to act that it will try to lock down U.S. support by paying some form of bonus.”
At the moment, the Saudis are sitting on a large unpaid bill. In September, Defense News reported that the Saudis still owed the Pentagon $181 million for midair refueling assistance for its bombing runs over Yemen.
Cmdr. Rebecca Rebarich, a Pentagon spokeswoman, indicated that the Saudis have made some progress toward paying the outstanding bill. “The process of reimbursement is continuing, and we continue to expect full reimbursement of refueling expenses,” she told The Fact Checker. “I am not going to be able to provide specifics on the reimbursement process.”
Update, Oct. 22: Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper visited Prince Sultan Air Base and told reporters the Saudis were engaged in “burden-sharing.” He described that as “something that we expect of all of our partners and allies, whether it’s Asia or Europe, is to help share the cost, share the burden of either housing, hosting our troops on their land or supporting them in deployments, whatever the case may be.”
His remarks further suggest that the Saudis are not paying 100 percent of the cost.
The Pinocchio Test
After years of listening to Trump, we suspect that there may be some truth here but that it’s highly exaggerated. It’s certainly fishy that no one in the administration appears willing to explain what, if anything, has been negotiated. And we certainly can’t accept it on the basis of the president’s rhetoric, which has proved so wrong about his deals with Saudi Arabia in the past.
On the basis of the available evidence, we are going to label this with Three Pinocchios. If more information is eventually forthcoming, we will update this fact check and possibly the Pinocchio rating as well.
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