As the 2016 presidential campaign began, Pulitzer-winning journalist David Cay Johnston wrote “21 Questions For Donald Trump” — a penetrating examination of the casino mogul’s shady past that became one of the most popular articles ever published by National Memo. In his new book It’s Even Worse Than You Think: What The Trump Administration Is Doing To America, Johnston demonstrates in comprehensive detail that the current regime in Washington is a “kakistocracy,” meaning government by the least qualified and most venal. The following excerpt examines the damage done to American diplomacy through the lens of Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia, four months after he took office, and the speech he delivered at a Gulf Cooperation Council meeting in Riyadh, the Saudi capital.
During the presidential campaign, Trump stirred up crowds with lurid descriptions of ISIL’s beheadings. ISIL sought to inflame Americans and Europeans with its atrocious acts. But they served another purpose as well — frightening people in areas ISIL controlled so they would submit to its authority lest their heads come off.
Trump said nothing about Saudi Arabia beheading people, which government executioners did on average three times per week in 2015 and 2016. Nor did he protest executions via public stonings, another Saudi government technique to frighten its 28 million people into submission to the monarchy’s absolute rule. Burying people in the ground up to their necks so rocks could be thrown at their heads was both a brutal way to kill and a terrifying reminder of the regime’s barbaric views on official violence.
Sometimes beheaded bodies are crucified in Saudi Arabia, all this done in public as crowds watch what journalist John R. Bradley describes as the “only form of public entertainment” in Saudi Arabia, aside from soccer matches.
Qatar, the country the Saudis wanted to bring to heel, does not stage beheadings. The last Qatari execution occurred in 2003 when a firing squad ended the life of a convicted murderer. But it was Qatar that Trump denounced while he was in the Saudi kingdom, shocking its emir and many American diplomatic and military leaders because Qatar is crucial to American interests in that part of the world.
More than 11,000 American military personnel work out of the twenty-square-mile Al Udeid Air Base south of Doha, the capital of Qatar.
From there the Air Force directs American bombers and jet fighter attacks on ISIL, the Taliban in Afghanistan, and Houthi rebels the Saudis want suppressed in Yemen. Americans at the airbase in Qatar also controlled drones used for surveillance of suspected Al Qaeda, Taliban, and other terrorist leaders, directing missile strikes at them and their entourages.
Trump’s Riyadh speech praising the Saudis and their Middle Eastern allies while condemning Qatar drew firm lines in the sand. “With God’s help, this summit will mark the beginning of the end for those who practice terror and spread its vile creed,” Trump said, adding, “there can be no coexistence with this violence. There can be no tolerating it, no accepting it, no excusing it, and no ignoring it.”
Those remarks indicate Trump was unaware, or did not care, that the Saudis are the world’s largest sponsor of terrorism, far exceeding the Ira- nian government that Trump frequently denounces for its support for terrorism. The State Department lists sixty-one terrorist organizations, all but two of which are aligned with Sunnis and the extreme Wahhabi sect that is officially endorsed in Saudi Arabia. The Saudis fund fifty-seven of those terrorist groups. Qatar, the country that Trump joined the Saudis and their allies in denouncing, was also involved in funding terrorist groups, though they committed their acts of political violence mostly in the Middle East.
All American presidents before Trump had, in varying degrees, modulated their remarks to avoid exacerbating the centuries-old rivalries within Islamic countries. Their carefully scripted and nuanced public statements and official actions reflected the intelligence assessment that taxpayers paid for so our officials would understand the Middle East. Previous presidents took care not to excite a viper’s nest of poisonous religious and political conflicts in that part of the world and to balance American interests among these contending factions.
Abandoning that history of thoughtful diplomacy, Trump went all in with the Saudis and their allies. He said he applauded the “Gulf Coopera- tion Council for blocking funders from using their countries as a financial base for terror, and designating Hezbollah as a terrorist organization last year. Saudi Arabia also joined us this week in placing sanctions on one of the most senior leaders of Hezbollah.” While the designation did occur, it was likely window dressing to please Trump, not an actual severing of the relationship between rich Saudis who depend on the Saud family government for their fortunes and the dozens of terrorist groups they enable.
The official White House version of the speech, including capital letters, declared:
A better future is only possible if your nations drive out the terrorists and extremists. Drive. Them. Out. DRIVE THEM OUT of your places of worship. DRIVE THEM OUT of your communities. DRIVE THEM OUT of your holy land, and DRIVE THEM OUT OF THIS EARTH. For our part, America is committed to adjusting our strategies to meet evolving threats and new facts. We will discard those strategies that have not worked—and will apply new approaches informed by experience and judgment. We are adopt- ing a Principled Realism, rooted in common values and shared interests.
How attacking Qatar could be principled or realistic is something people deeply versed in the Middle East could not understand. It did, however, align with Trump’s desire to make American news organizations come to heel and present only news that in his opinion accurately reflects his actions.
We cannot know what Trump was thinking as he read his speech. He showed no sign then or later of realizing the irony of delivering these re- marks to a room filled with religious authoritarians whose governments and citizens finance terrorists, including the 9/11 hijackers. Nothing he said suggested that he understood the disputes among the various countries controlled by Sunni potentates and dictators.
Trump’s remarks also made no sense to those who know that Saudis fund the Taliban, the Afghan forces that harbored Osama bin Laden at the time of the 9/11 attack.
The Saudis surely have an interest in going after some terrorists. Their interest is in stopping terrorism by Shia Muslims, the branch of Islam dominant in Iran.
Trump had interests, too. At a 2015 rally in Mobile, Alabama, Trump said Saudis “buy apartments from me. They spend $40 million, $50 mil- lion. Am I supposed to dislike them? I like them very much.” Trump created more than a half dozen companies in Saudi Arabia. All were inactive, but he suggested that he had plans to build a golf course, hotel, or other property there.
A month after the inauguration, his sons opened the Trump International Golf Club in Dubai. A few weeks before taking office, Trump said that his partner in that venture, Hussain Sajwani, offered him a $2 billion deal. Trump said he rejected the offer out of concern that people would think he would “take advantage” of the presidency to make money.
Trump said he would have a conflict of interest regarding Turkey if he became president. “I have a little conflict of interest ’cause I have a major, major building in Istanbul,” he told Breitbart in 2015. “It’s a tremendously successful job. It’s called Trump Towers—two towers, instead of one, not the usual one, it’s two.” Ivanka Trump tweeted thanks to Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in 2012 for attending the launch of the Trump twin towers.
There was also a possible explanation for his attack on Qatar. Trump has a long history of being incredibly petty, his tweets showing his thin skin. Qatar Airways rented space in Trump Tower in 2008, but moved out in 2014, a slight Trump would likely not forget.
In Las Vegas, during the final presidential election debate, Trump had taken a very different tone about Saudi Arabia. Referring to gifts to the Clinton Global Initiative, a charity that helps poor people, Trump demanded that Hillary Clinton and her husband ‘‘give back the money you’ve taken from certain countries that treat certain groups of people so terrible.’’
Trump specified ‘‘Saudi Arabia giving $25 million, Qatar, all of these countries. You talk about women and women’s rights? So these are people that push gays off . . . buildings. These are people that kill women and treat women horribly. And yet you take their money.”
Trump’s flip-flop on the Saudis after the election showed how little he understands the Middle East by comparison with Hillary Clinton. As secretary of state, Clinton had a nuanced and deep understanding of the complexities of the Middle East and how all the governments there in some way support terrorists. In an email from February 14 that was revealed by WikiLeaks, she wrote that “we need to use our diplomatic and more traditional intelligence assets to bring pressure on the governments of Qatar and Saudi Arabia, which are providing clandestine financial and logistic support to ISIL and other radical Sunni groups in the region.”