Since Donald Trump’s noisy exit from the presidency in January 2021, the former commander in chief and his family have made billions of dollars in business deals with Saudi Arabia’s ruling elite. Jared Kushner, the former president’s son-in-law who served as the de facto Middle Eastern viceroy during Trump’s tenure in office, has been the biggest buck raker in the clan. As Michael Kranish details in an extensive report published in The Washington Post on Saturday, both Trump and Kushner faced financial difficulty in 2021 but found salvation thanks to a sovereign wealth fund headed by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (popularly known as MBS).
A private equity firm headed by Kushner received more than $2 billion in funding from MBS’s wealth fund—despite the fact that, as Kranish writes, “the four members of a five-person panel of the fund’s advisers who attended a meeting about the matter were ‘not in favor’ of the investment, citing Kushner’s inexperience in private equity and the fact that the Saudis would bear most of the risk.” Trump himself has received extensive Saudi funding in the form of tournaments held at his golf courses and the planned building of a new Trump hotel in Oman.
Using off-the-record statements from former White House officials as well as public evidence, Kranish makes a compelling case that there was a shady quid pro quo between the Trump family and MBS. When they held the White House, the Trumps took the existing American alliance with Saudi Arabia and pushed into a new level of personal devotion to MBS, whose position as crown prince was precarious and needed shoring up. Saudi Arabia was the first country Trump visited as president. Under Trump, the USA turned a blind eye to escalating human rights abuses inside Saudi Arabia and mounting war crimes in the American-supported Saudi war against Yemen. When Washington Post writer and Saudi dissident Jamal Ahmad Khashoggi was kidnapped and gruesomely murdered at the behest of MBS, the Trump White House protected the Saudi autocrat from the ensuing backlash.
In a recorded interview with Bob Woodward, Trump said about MBS, “I saved his ass.” Trump sent his secretary of state Mike Pompeo to Saudi Arabia with these words:“My Mike, go and have a good time. Tell him he owes us.” By lavishing billions on the Trump family since 2021, MBS has shown he’s well aware of the debt that needs repayment.
The Trump-MBS relationship is as corrupt as corrupt can be. It is particularly worrisome as Trump is in the midst of another presidential run. If Trump did so much for MBS in his first term, what even worse deals could be struck if he is reelected? Yet the Washington policy elite and media have shown relatively little interest in Trump’s Saudi connections, especially in comparison to the much-ballyhooed Russiagate scandal.
To be sure, some congressional Democrats, notably Oregon Senator Ron Wyden, have used their investigatory powers to highlight the sordid Trump-Saudi ties and to call for new laws to more closely regulate what business an ex-president can conduct. Further, aside from The Washington Post, there’s been good reporting on Trump’s Saudi ties from The New York Times and The Intercept, among other publications.
Still, these welcome investigations amount to nothing more than a small hill overshadowed by the mountain of Russiagate. The investigation of Trump’s alleged ties to Russia did make real discoveries, such as Trump’s continued pursuit of a hotel deal in Moscow even as he ran for president in 2016. But troubling as such an action was, it pales in significance compared to the actual deals Trump and his family made with Saudi Arabia.
Yet Russiagate received far more congressional and press attention. Russiagate was the instigation for Robert Mueller’s special counsel investigation and two presidential impeachments. The Saudi connection hasn’t had any comparable consequences.
The political reason the Democrats focused on Russiagate is obvious. Russia is a long-standing American adversary; Saudi Arabia is an American ally central to the United States’ goal of maintaining hegemony in the Middle East. By linking Trump to Russia, the Democrats hoped they could win allies in the national security state (a successful move) and also among conservative Republicans (which turned out less well, although they there were a few high-profile converts among neoconservatives, like David Frum and William Kristol).
Because Saudi Arabia is intimately entangled in American foreign policy, the Trump family is far from alone in luxuriating in pelf from the oil rich kingdom. As Michael Kranish reports, “A former administration official allied with Kushner, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak about the matter publicly, said there are numerous examples of top former government employees doing business with people they once dealt with while in public service. Kushner had such a broad agenda that it would be unfair to block business relationships with those he knew from his White House days, the former official said.”
This anonymous official is making the “we all do it” defense. In the case of Saudi Arabia, it’s true enough factually even if we question it morally.
“More than 500 retired U.S. military personnel—including scores of generals and admirals—have taken lucrative jobs since 2015 working for foreign governments, mostly in countries known for human rights abuses and political repression,” The Washington Post reported last October. “In Saudi Arabia, for example, 15 retired U.S. generals and admirals have worked as paid consultants for the Defense Ministry since 2016.” The paper specified that “Saudi Arabia’s paid advisers have included retired Marine Gen. James L. Jones, a national security adviser to President Barack Obama, and retired Army Gen. Keith Alexander, who led the National Security Agency under Obama and President George W. Bush.” The Saudi regime, along with other dictatorships including Saudi allies such as the United Arab Emirates, is also a heavy donor to think tanks and other American nonprofits.
The Trump family might be the biggest pigs munching away at the Saudi trough, but they aren’t the only ones feeding there. If Trump is the Republican nominee in 2024, his corrupt deals with MBS should rightly be one of the main arguments used to thwart his third White House bid. Alas, given the history of Trump’s actual presidency and post-presidency, most Democrats and even Trump critics in the media will shy away from the issue. Saudi corruption touches too many powerful interests to be a safe target.