There should be a simple rule for Trump commentary: Every criticism of his actions should be placed in historical context by citing any other politicians, in Washington and elsewhere, who have done similar things. Appoint a hostile administrator to gut the EPA? Reagan did that, and her son now sits on the Supreme Court. Racist rhetoric? See Nixon, Richard and George H. W. Bush’s Willie Horton ad. Promote a bloated military budget? Most politicians in Washington went along with Trump’s latest request, and threw in billions he didn’t even ask for.
I try to keep my Trump-only critiques to a minimum, for four reasons:
+ Everybody knows he’s an asshole. No news value there.
+ Everybody’s knocking Trump. It’s a trend. It’s like the 1970s, when everyone started recording disco tracks, or the 1990s, when everyone went country. Don’t follow the herd, I say.
+ Most Trump criticism is a distraction from the systemic political and oligarchical failures that gave us Trump in the first place.
+ The tendency to characterize Trump as not only horrible, but uniquely horrible, contributes to our national amnesia regarding the other monsters in the American id — some of whom still walk among us.
On that last point: Despite his newfound popularity among Democrats, George W. Bush’s body count vastly surpasses Trump’s — at least so far. Who knew that handing a favorite personality a piece of candywas all it took to rehabilitate a war criminal? Abu Ghraib, torture, spying on American citizens, Dick Cheney: all forgotten in one Hallmark moment.
What used to be called “living memory” — the recollection of events most of us have personally lived through — is barely on life support nowadays.
Prez Pans Saudi Shocker
I was compelled to break my own rule today, however, when I read Trump’s latest comment about the Saudi cover-up of Jamal Khashoggi’s murder. The President of the United States and Commander-in-Chief of the largest military force in human history reportedly said the following:
“They had a very bad original concept. It was carried out poorly, and the cover-up was one of the worst in the history of cover-ups. Very simple. Bad deal, should have never been thought of.”
That’s showbiz lingo as practiced by amateurs. It’s the way Hollywood wannabes sound when they’re talking too loudly during a movie at the Arclight Cinema in Hollywood. Style notes aside, Trump’s review of the Saudi murder show was an unequivocal two thumbs down. Once the other world leaders have filed their reviews we can check ‘em out on Rotten Tomatoes.
In the meantime, Trump isn’t wrong. The Khashoggi cover-up was a bad concept, and it was carried out poorly. If Trump is frustrated about that, he almost certainly has good reason to be. He has well-documented financial ties to Saudi Arabia — much better documented, in fact, than any ties to Russia — and he’d undoubtedly love to sweep this whole ugly matter under the faux-bearskin rug as soon as possible.
Town Without Pity
But — and keeping item #4, above, in mind — there are a lot of people here in Washington who’d like to bury the Khashoggi matter just as much as Trump would. This town is awash in Saudi cash. It props up “bipartisan” national security think tanks, funds research, and some of the “experts” you may have seen on cable TV.
That’s not new information. The New York Times documented the foreign funding of think tanks in 2014, with Saudi government money going to the Atlantic Council, the Brookings Institution, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and the Middle East Institute. Comments from one expert, quoted by Vox’s Max Fisher, demonstrate exactly what that money buys:
“’I could write about Saudi sectarianism, but then I might lose some money,'” the expert said, explaining the thoughts a Gulf-funded scholar might have. “‘I could write about UAE human rights abuses, but, you know, there are abuses everywhere, and there are a million other things I can write about.'”
The King and Us
Worse, to criticize Saudi brutality is to risk the enmity of the United States government, which has backed it under both parties. The Obama Administration’s support for the Saudis’ humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen was continued and intensified under Trump. The horror has grown even worse.
A child dies every ten minutes in Yemen, which means one probably died while you were reading these words. Nearly half of all children aged between six months and 5 years old are chronically malnourished and stunted, conditions that will affect them for the rest of their lives.
And that’s just the children. (More statistics here.)
Only one thing could make the Saudi/think tank story even worse: That’s right, it’s Mark Zuckerberg. Facebook announced last May that it’s “partnering” with one of those Saudi-funded think tanks, the Atlantic Council, to censor political speech on its platform. (They don’t put it quite that way, but that’s what they mean.)
Conscience and Cocktails
The insiders who are genuinely outraged by Khashoggi’s murder — and who weren’t outraged before — don’t deserve much credit. What does it say about the empathy of our elites when they are unmoved by the deaths of children, and can only summon emotion when the brutality extends to someone they might have met at a cocktail party?
It’s useful hypocrisy, I suppose, if it can be used to muster support for ending US involvement in Yemen. But there’s not much chance of that.
Michael J. Glennon, professor of international law at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, explained why bad foreign policy remains largely unchanged from administration to administration. In his book, “National Security and Double Government,”
Glennon characterizes the “several hundred officials” who shape that policy as answerable to no one and indifferent to the consequences and costs of a metastasizing military machine. Glennon writes that their “dynamic” promotes “encourages the exaggeration of existing threats and the creation of imaginary ones.”
Those officials like things the way they are, and they set the rules politicians must follow — unless they’re brave.
No wonder a “bipartisan” Congress gave the Pentagon billions of dollars more than the Trump administration had asked for — with yes votes from a lot of “Resistance” heroes. That may explain the course of action Trump says he plans to take regarding Saudi Arabia.
“In terms of what we ultimately do,” Trump said, “I’m going to leave it very much — in conjunction with me — up to Congress.”
A Full Investigation
When my broadcast team and I released a secretly-recorded audio tape of Trump speaking at a June, 2017 fundraiser, I wondered in The Intercept why Trump had “waded heavily into an ongoing confrontation involving Saudi Arabia and its allies on one side and Qatar on the other” and suggested further investigations into Trump’s financial dealings with Saudi Arabia.
There was one problem with that idea: The national security establishment wants to protect its relationships with Saudi Arabia, and it wants to escalate tensions with Russia. Predictably, Trump’s Russia ties have received widespread coverage and investigation, while his Saudi ties have gone all but unremarked.
Now, Trump is reportedly sending CIA Director Gina Haspel to help with the investigation — because, when it comes to uncovering the truth about a state’s brutal actions, who has more credibility than someone who participated in an illegal torture program and systematically destroyed evidence?
Haspel would never have become CIA director if President Obama had not chosen to ignore evidence of war crimes by proclaiming, “We need to look forward as opposed to looking backwards.” (Until we develop “minority report” technology — you can be sure they’re working on it right now — that statement would make it impossible to investigate any crime.)
Concept and Execution
Nobody ever expected the Saudi’s cover story to be plausible. It wasn’t meant to be believed, at least by anyone familiar with foreign policy. But it needed to be a simulacrum of plausibility, something official-sounding and obfuscating enough to provide cover for the DC establishment as the money spigot was re-opened. Unfortunately, their story is so preposterous — a “bad original concept” that was indeed “carried out poorly”— that it’s likely to take some time before the cash can start flowing again.
Given the gravity of the horror and the enormity of the crime, it could take as long as six weeks.
No wonder the Saudi story got such a bad review. Trump, and the entire city of Washington, was hoping for a halfway decent performance on opening night. But, when the curtain rose, the Saudis did the same thing on the world stage that they’ve been doing in Yemen for years: