Is Trump Compromised by Saudi Money?

The incoming chairman of the House Intelligence Committee wants to know, saying the president hasn’t been honest in accepting Saudi denials in the Khashoggi murder.

President Donald Trump and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the Oval Office in March (Evan Vucci / Associated Press)

On Thanksgiving Day, President Donald Trump once again touted the Saudi royal family’s denial of any role in the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi. That didn’t sit well with Representative Adam Schiff, the California Democrat poised to take over the House Intelligence Committee.

“The president is not being honest with the country about the murder of Jamal Khashoggi,” Schiff said Sunday on CNN’s State of the Union, having promised to use his new authority to investigate whether Trump’s personal finances influence his foreign policy. “Is his personal financial interest driving U.S. policy in the Gulf? … Are there financial entanglements with the Gulf? Are there financial inducements that the president has not to want to cross the Saudis?”

Although Trump tweeted last month that he has “no financial interests in Saudi Arabia,” he has in the past acknowledged business ties with the kingdom. “Saudi Arabia, I like the Saudis,” he said at a July 2015 campaign rally. “I make a lot of money with them. They buy all sorts of my stuff. All kinds of toys from Trump. They pay me millions and hundreds of millions.” The Associated Press reported that in the 1990s, when Trump was “teetering on personal bankruptcy and scrambling to raise cash,” a billionaire Saudi prince twice closed on multimillion-dollar deals, including one to buy a 282-foot yacht called Princess. More recent business comes through Saudi stays at Trump hotels during his presidency, though PolitiFact reports that the Trump Organization doesn’t appear to own property or invest in the kingdom.

These concerns about Trump’s financial entanglements with Saudi Arabia parallel suspicions about possible financial connections to Russia, which Schiff also promised to investigate, including “whether the Russians have been laundering money through the president’s businesses, and this is the financial hold that the Russians may have. It would certainly explain the otherwise bewildering conduct of the president in Helsinki, many of the president’s pro-Putin comments. It would explain why his sons have said at various times they don’t need money from U.S. banks—they get all the money they need from Russia.”

Schiff, whom Trump called “little Adam Schitt” in a tweet last week, apparently is laying the groundwork to dig into the president’s personal finances more than any other investigator. When the Democrats take control of the House in January, he’ll gain control of the Intelligence Committee’s subpoena power and majority staff. The Daily Beast reported a few days ago that the committee has created positions for “money-laundering and forensic accounting experts.”

Some GOP senators joined Schiff and the Democrats in rejecting Trump’s meek acceptance of Saudi denials as they pressed for tougher punishment.

“I disagree with the president’s assessment. It’s inconsistent with the intelligence I’ve seen,” said Senator Mike Lee, the libertarian-leaning Utahan who was the only non-judge on the president’s short list for the Supreme Court. On NBC’s Meet the Press, the host, Chuck Todd, asked whether Lee supported congressional investigations into Trump’s motive for accepting Saudi denials.

“Look, I don’t know why he’s siding with the Saudis … (But I’m) certain that in the next Congress, people will look into that.” The GOP senator argued for cutting U.S. support for the Saudis’ devastating war in Yemen, pointing to his collaboration with Bernie Sanders on that issue.

Senator Joni Ernst of Iowa, elected this month to the No. 5 GOP leadership spot, expressed a quieter objection. “I do think we need to look into this further,” she said on CNN’s State of the Union. She highlighted the importance of a strong U.S. ally in the Middle East but added, “We also are a very strong nation when it comes to human rights, when it comes to the rule of law. And if there are indicators that the prince was involved in this murder, then we need to absolutely consider further action.”

[Read: For Trump, the truth about Jamal Khashoggi is beside the point.]

Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse, a frequent Trump critic whom Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona floated as a 2020 primary challenger, said on Fox News Sunday that the president’s statement was “very weak.” Sasse acknowledged the realpolitik case for a tight alliance with the Saudis and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, known as MbS. But then he said, “Making the realist case is a different thing than being so weak that we failed to tell the truth. MbS contributed to murdering somebody abroad, and it is not strength to sort of mumble past that. Strength is telling the truth even when it’s hard.”

After a Thanksgiving Day teleconference with U.S. troops around the world, President Trump took questions from reporters, who asked about the American response to Khashoggi’s murder last month at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Although the CIA has concluded with high confidence that MbS ordered the killing, according to a Washington Post report, Trump once again emphasized the vehemence of the royal family’s denials and said that “the CIA points it both ways.”

So, a reporter asked, “who should be held accountable?” The president’s response did not identify any other Saudi officials, military cooperation, arms sales, official visits, or support for the war in Yemen. Instead, Trump seemed to blame universal human depravity.

“Maybe the world should be held accountable, because the world is a vicious place,” Trump said. “The world is a very, very vicious place. If you look at what’s happening in China, if you look at what’s happening in so many different countries—I could name many countries. If you look at what’s happening with terrorism all over the world.”

So as Schiff lays the groundwork to investigate Trump’s ties to the Saudis and the Russians, it seems that, beyond the sanctions levied against 15 to 20 agents and officials directly involved in Khashoggi’s killing, the Trump administration is not likely to hold MbS or Saudi Arabia responsible for ordering the murder.