It’s that time of a presidency when every incumbent pretends to be what he isn’t, or to do what he hasn’t. With a re-election year kicking off, everyone wants to know if the candidate can fill in the gaping holes in his record, to give voters some reason to hope or believe.
In the case of Donald Trump, that means trying to look like something he hasn’t been for the last two and a half years: presidential, sane, and worthy of the world’s respect. Just for once.
So there are the TV interviews with networks other than Fox News, including the one with ABC News where he was supposed to look normal but ended up saying he’d accept more Russian dirt in the upcoming election. If only to see if it was any good. Totally presidential.
There was the decisive moment when he turned the jets around as they were about to bomb Iran: an act of leadership that overruled his hawkish aides, as well as his earlier decision to, um, bomb Iran. Totally commander-in-chief.
And then there was the interview with NBC News, where he readily admitted that he puts a higher value on arms deals with Saudi Arabia than on American values like democracy and human rights. Totally making America great again.
Pressed by NBC, Trump made it clear that he couldn’t care less about the bone saw-wielding murderers who dismembered journalist Jamal Khashoggi, allegedly on the orders of the Saudi crown prince himself. He also couldn’t care about the UN’s recommendations that the FBI investigate the murder of Khashoggi, who was a US resident and wrote for the Washington Post.
Unable to muster any human feeling, Trump couldn’t muster any rational answers either. “I think it’s been heavily investigated,” Trump said. When asked who had done all that heavy investigating, he blurted out: “By everybody … I’ve seen so many different reports.”
Seeing is normally believing, but in Trump’s case that might not be true. “Here’s where I am,” he said, warming to the subject of international relations. “You ready?”
It’s not at all clear if the world is ready for this kind of train of thought, even after all these many years of blather. You see, according to Trump there are other countries that do bad things, like Iran. And they do so many bad things that Iran is totally worth investigating.
This kind of argument somewhat undermines the presidential moment that averted war with Iran, but let’s not set our standards too high. Because there was more of this brain fart to follow.
“I’m not like a fool that says, ‘We don’t want to do business with them.’ And by the way, if they don’t do business with us, you know what they do? They’ll do business with the Russians or with the Chinese. They will buy – we make the best equipment in the world, but they will buy great equipment from Russia and from China,” he told Chuck Todd of NBC News.
“Chuck, take their money. Take their money, Chuck.”
Trump has already said that his re-election slogan is “Keep America Great,” as if the next four years will be a desperate exercise in clinging on to what he thinks he’s achieved, such as avoiding impeachment.
This is a shame because “Take Their Money” is a far more authentic one-liner about this president. At least it suggests that the Trump project is an ongoing enterprise.
To be fair, the Trump administrationis hardly the first to overlook every human rights abuse by the Saudi regime in the single-minded pursuit of oil, money and power. Previous presidents and prime ministers were also surprisingly capable of ignoring the kingdom’s oppression of women, and its love of state-sanctioned death by beheading.
In fact, the Saudis decapitated 37 men just a few weeks ago, most of them minority Shia Muslims who were denied a fair trial. Some of them were children at the time of their sentencing. None of them were Washington Post journalists, and the killings received far less attention.
Perhaps we care more about beheadings after Isis. Perhaps we think the Saudis should live up to the so-called reform agenda of the crown prince, Mohammad bin Salman. Perhaps the bonesaw was just too horrific to ignore.
Whatever the reason, Trump’s desire to sell arms to the Saudis flies in the face of his own Republicans, as well as all the Democrats who already consider his foreign policy about as credible and responsible as the Saudi reforms.
Just last week Senate Republicans joined with Democrats to vote repeatedly to block US arms sales to the Saudis and the Gulf states, while the Trumpistas tried to run around Congress by declaring an emergency over Iran. It wasn’t that long ago that Congress voted to cut off US support for the brutal Saudi-backed war in Yemen.
Trump vetoed Congress before and will surely do so again. All the chest-beating about Iran, as well as all the back-tracking on military strikes, needs to be seen in this context about Trump’s curious love affair with the Saudis.
It’s a romance that has left even the few close friends of Donald Trump in a position of downright opposition, including the otherwise sycophantic Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. “There is no amount of oil you can produce that will get me and others to give you a pass on chopping somebody up in a consulate,” Graham said, after leading the legislation against the arms sales to the Saudis.
There is just one other country that elicits such a bizarrely determined and loyal attachment from Donald Trump: Russia. That foreign entanglement also causes head-scratching rifts with his own toadying Republicans. But nobody should find Trump’s attitudes to Russia and Saudi Arabia hard to understand.
We might not have his tax returns, but we do have Trump’s succinct summary of his motives: take the money, Chuck.