Thursday, October 11, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He put a price on the United States' tolerance for murder of journalists.

Trump was asked this morning about the apparent murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, which appears to have been committed at the Saudi embassy in Turkey by agents of the Saudi government. 

Trump's answer was, in effect, that the murder of a journalist could not be allowed to threaten the purchase of weapons from American arms dealers. He referenced Saudi weapons purchases four times in his answer.

REPORTER: Will Jamal Khashoggi’s case affect the way you deal with MBS or other Saudi officials? 
TRUMP: We have to see what happens. A lot of work is being done on that, and we’re going to have to see what happens. I don’t like stopping, uh, massive amounts of money that’s being poured into our country on — I, I, I know they’re talking about different kinds of sanctions, but they’re spending $110 billion on military equipment and on things that create jobs, like — jobs and others, for — this country. 
I don’t like the concept of stopping an investment of $110 billion into the United States, uh, because you know what they’re going to do? They’re going to take that money and spend it in Russia or China, or someplace else. So I think there are other ways. If it turns out to be as bad as it might be, there are certainly other ways of handling the situation.
But I will tell you, upfront, right now, and I’ll say it in front of senators: they’re spending $110 billion purchasing military equipment and other things. Uh — If we don’t sell it to them, they’ll say, “Well, thank you very much, we’ll buy it from Russia.” Or “Thank you very much, we’ll buy it from China.” That doesn’t help us — not when it comes to jobs and not when it comes to our companies losing out on that work. 
But there are other things we can do. Let’s find out what the problem is first. Okay? 
REPORTER You mean sanctions in that case? You oppose sanctions against Saudi Arabia? 
TRUMP: I oppose — I would not be in favor of stopping a country from spending $110 billion — which is an all-time record — and letting Russia have that money and letting China have that money. Because all they’re going to do is say, “That’s okay. We don’t have to buy it from Boeing. We don’t have to buy it from Lockheed. We don’t have to buy it from Raytheon and all these great companies. We’ll buy it from Russia. We’ll buy it from China.” 
So what good does that do us? There are other things we can do.

Even countries as powerful as the United States can't act with impunity on the world stage, but this may be the first time ever that a president has explicitly put a dollar figure on the United States government's willingness to tolerate state-sponsored murder of journalists.

Trump may feel he has to protect the "$110 billion" arms deal because he's already taken credit for it, even though it was begun under the Obama administration, and even though it doesn't really exist except in the form of unenforceable promises to consider buying weapons in the future. ($110 billion would be about 42% of Saudi Arabia's entire annual budget.)

But more to the point, Trump has already allowed himself to be compromised by the Saudi government. His faltering U.S. hotels have been propped up by Saudi government patronage, and the Saudi royal family bailed him out on several occasions during the 1990s. Trump himself admitted the conflict of interest on the campaign trail in 2015: “They [Saudis] buy apartments from me. They spend $40 million, $50 million. Am I supposed to dislike them? I like them very much.”

Trump has given over much of his Middle East policy to his son-in-law Jared Kushner. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the powerful figure thought to be behind the Khashoggi plot, has openly boasted of his ability to manipulate Kushner and hence the United States government.

Why should I care about this?

  • A president who is too compromised to act in defense of the United States is too weak to hold office.
  • When the United States retreats from defending freedom of the press, authoritarians take advantage.
  • There is no dollar figure that can be put on American values.