As of just a few days ago, Donald Trump was repeatedly mocking and threatening the leader of Saudi Arabia in order to get a few more hoots from supporters at his campaign rallies.
“We protect Saudi Arabia. Would you say they’re rich?” he baited the crowd in Mississippi on October 2. “And I love the King, King Salman. But I said ‘King – we’re protecting you – you might not be there for two weeks without us – you have to pay for your military.’ ”
In West Virginia on September 29, he told the crowd: “The stupid days are over, folks, I’m sorry. I mean, I love Saudi Arabia. They’re great. King Salman, I talked to him this morning, a long talk. And I said to him, ‘King, you’ve got trillions of dollars, without us, who knows what going to happen?'”
But in reality, as Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman told Bloomberg a few days after Trump’s assertions: “We believe that all the armaments we have from the United States of America are paid for.”
In fact, Saudi spending on U.S. weapons — many billion dollars a year — is so significant that the defense industry here is highly dependent on it
“Trump doesn’t seem to understand that the only country in the Middle East that doesn’t pay for U.S. weapons is Israel,” Chas Freeman, a former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia, told me in an interview.
So why would Trump say such a thing? “Essentially the man is entirely about demagoguery in the interest of feeding his own ego,” Freeman said. “He’s boasting about how tough he is.”
But now, public and congressional fury is growing quickly in response to what appears to have been the cold-blooded murder at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul of Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi critic who was a U.S. permanent resident and Washington Post columnist.
And Trump is suddenly stressing how much the Saudis pay, not how little.
He has essentially ruled out blocking future arms sales to the country as punishment. “I think that would be hurting us,” Trump said in a Fox News interview Wednesday night. “We have jobs, we have a lot of things happening in this country. We have a country that’s doing probably better economically than it’s ever done before.”
He continued: “A part of that is what we’re doing with our defense systems and everybody’s wanting them. And frankly I think that that would be a very, very tough pill to swallow for our country.” He drifted off: “I mean, you’re affecting us and, you know, they’re always quick to jump that way.”
Thursday afternoon, he told journalists in the Oval Office that his relations with the Saudi royal family is “excellent.”
“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,” he said.
“What good does that do us?”
For now, the $110 billion figure, which is what Trump announced after a lavish welcome in Riyadh last year, stands only as a record exaggeration.
Actual Saudi spending on U.S. weapons was $65 billion between 2009 and 2016.