Trump, Russia, and Saudi Arabia?

Image caption: President Trump (left) shaking hands with Saudi Defense Minister and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (right).

The 12-count indictment against Paul Manafort and Rick Gates, as a part of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, hit national news early in the day on October 30th, stunning both Republicans and Democrats alike. Anti-Trump individuals took to social media to celebrate what was seen as the efforts of Mueller’s probe into Russian intervention during the 2016 election finally coming to fruition. In opposition, Trump’s supporters hastily rushed to point out that the indictment, which consists of charges including conspiracy against the United States and money laundering, fails to explicitly implicate anyone in the Trump administration of direct collusion with Russia.

Accompanying this indictment is the revelation that George Papadopoulos, a former foreign policy adviser to Trump during his 2016 campaign, has pled guilty to making false statements to the FBI after lying about his relationships and interactions with certain figures within the Russian government. Papadopoulos had previously claimed that he had met with a professor based in London, because of the assertion that “the Russians had emails of Clinton” and “[the Russians] have dirt on her,” before he was involved with Trump’s 2016 campaign. However, the recently released statement reveals that Papadopoulos had been informed that he would be a foreign policy advisor for the campaign in early March 2016, and his meeting with the professor happened in late April 2016. Moreover, Papadopoulos repeatedly attempted to arrange an “off the record” meeting between members of Putin’s regime and members from Trump’s campaign, including Trump himself.

Papadopoulos confessed to meeting with individuals whom he believed would provide him with evidence the Trump campaign could use against then-presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. Overall, the offenses he committed were of stating falsely that he had met with these individuals before he had joined the Trump campaign, and that his interactions with these individuals were negligible.

In fact, he had met with both of them after he joined the campaign as a foreign policy advisor and had had significant communication with both of them in order to obtain damning information against Clinton.

This is the closest the Mueller probe has gotten to evidence of collusion with Russia concerning the 2016 campaign. The evident confusion and lack of transparency within the White House concerning Papadopoulos’s role in the Trump campaign lends an even greater aura of suspicion surrounding the whole issue. The Papadopoulos plea and Manafort-Gates indictment are highly consequential and are just the beginning steps of the Mueller probe.

While the Trump administration is still under special investigation as Mueller continues and expands his purview concerning Russian collusion, it’s worthwhile to take a closer look at Manafort’s political engagement and the light this indictment sheds on his past international dealings. Manafort has a notoriously shady past as a political consultant and lobbyist for various countries and governments. Considering his relationship with the 2016 Trump campaign and administration, what does his indictment and his past associations mean in the context of our current presidency and the future of our international network?

A look into the history and ties between Saudi Arabia and key figures within the Trump administration lends greater clarity about the Trump administration’s unexpected friendship with the Saudi Royal Family and warmth towards Saudi Arabia. Focusing specifically on Manafort’s business associations with the Saudi government also contextualizes the current situation with Manafort and the Trump administration within historical context.

The ties between Saudi Arabia and key figures within the Trump administration lends greater clarity to the Trump administration’s unexpected warmth towards Saudi Arabia. Focusing specifically on Manafort’s business deals relating to Saudi Arabia and

Manafort and Gates were Trump’s 2016 campaign chairman and a campaign official respectively and they pled not guilty to all 12 charges against them. The charges are founded upon their work as political consultants and lobbyists with the Ukrainian government from 2006-2015. Manafort and Gates made $18 million and $3 million respectively lobbying the US on behalf of the Ukrainian parties. Although they were required to report their work and fees to the US government, they failed to do so, and instead actively hid their work and profits.

Manafort and Gates hid their profits from US authorities by funneling money through multiple foreign bank accounts in various countries and territories under fake names. They then proceeded to falsely report to tax preparers and to the US that they had no foreign bank accounts. Thus, Manafort was able to wire money from his foreign accounts and use it to lead a lavish lifestyle in the States, without having to pay income taxes on it. In total, $75 million was moved through their offshore accounts.

What was not revealed or brought up in the Mueller probe, is that Manafort performed very similar work for the Saudi Arabian government from 1984-1986. Manafort’s work involved lobbying against moving the US embassy from Tel-Aviv to Jerusalem on behalf of Saudi Arabia. For this, Manafort was paid handsomely: $200,000 for six months of work. In 1985, Manafort advised the Saudi government on US relations and issues for $300,000, and in 1986, Manafort lobbied the Reagan administration, pushing for an arms sale to Saudi Arabia for $250,000. In light of Manafort’s revealed proclivity for money laundering, a closer look at those transactions and the flow of money might be necessary.

Another aspect of Manafort’s international dealings is the fact that in 1995, he worked as a political consultant and advisor for then-French Prime Minister and presidential candidate Edouard Balladur. Balladur fell under suspicion in a 2013 French national investigation for suspicion of corruption, and illegal funding of his presidential campaign in what is now known as the Karachi Affair.

Manafort’s involvement in this scandal was uncovered by the French investigation, and in a Virginia court, he admitted to being paid by an advisor to the Saudi royal court for providing advice to Balladur’s campaign. Abdul Rahman al-Assir, the Saudi advisor, and Ziad Takieddine, a Lebanese businessman, who is also under investigation for corruption, were brought in as intermediaries to sign an arms deal between France, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan. Manafort reported that he had received at least $200,000 from al-Assir as payment for his advising work. In addition to the reported $200,000, it was later discovered that Manafort had failed to disclose three separate transfers from al-Assir’s Madrid account to an account of Manafort’s, totalling over $140,000.

The implications behind Manafort’s indictment for money laundering and his questionable work as an international political consultant and lobbyist sheds doubt upon the legitimacy of Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign, considering Manafort’s central role within the Trump administration as the chairman of Trump’s campaign. The White House has tried to distance itself from Manafort, but similar to Papadopoulos, the conflicting statements offered by the White House and the verities of the situation suggests how much the White House is attempting to cover up.

A key player in understanding the relationship between Manafort and the Trump administration is Trump’s unofficial advisor and whisperer, Thomas Barrack. Barrack has been a loyal long-time friend of Trump’s for 30 years and he played a role in convincing Trump and Kushner to hire Manafort and Gates for Trump’s campaign. Barrack is well-known in the political sphere for his business history with the Middle East, and has especially deep ties with Saudi Arabia.

As reported by the Washington Post, the story begins in 1972, when Barrack went to Saudi Arabia as a lawyer to break a gas deal. While there, he met the sons of Faisal bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, the king of Saudi Arabia. He formed close relationships with them, and subsequently, the Saudi princes hired him to be their American representative.

In the late 1970’s, Barrack and Manafort met in Beruit, Lebanon, where Manafort was employed by a firm that was working with a Saudi construction company. They’ve been friends ever since.

In 1987, Barrack was hired to by the Bass family to work with Trump concerning shares in the Bass business and real estate deals. This marks the beginning of their long-lived friendship. Trump wanted to buy a 20% share of the Alexander department store chain owned by the Bass brothers and take over some real estate. Barrack and Trump made a deal to buy the shares.

Following that, in 1988, Trump wanted to buy the Plaza hotel, which was at the time owned by the Bass family. Barrack was the deal broker for them, and told Trump that the Bass family was asking $410 million for the hotel, which Trump agreed to pay. While Trump later had to give up the Plaza hotel due to bankruptcy, this deal solidified Barrack’s role as a deal maker and furthered his relationship with Trump.

Again, in 1994, Trump was struggling with financial problems, and Barrack helped him out by getting backers for a $100 million loan Trump was attempting to finance. These backers were members of the Saudi royal family. Evidently, Barrack and Trump’s close personal friendship has led to Barrack helping Trump out in many a tough time, often with the help of his Saudi Arabian connections.

To further complicate the matter, in 2006, Barrack worked with Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal to buy the Fairmont Hotel chain. This same Saudi Prince Alwaleed has bailed out Trump twice before. Once in 1991, he bought Trump’s yacht for $18 million when Trump was going through financial difficulties. In 1995, when Trump had to give up the Plaza hotel for aforementioned bankruptcy, Alwaleed bailed him out once again. He agreed to pay Trump’s $300 million mortgage on the hotel.

Despite their past business deals, Trump and Alwaleed sparred very publicly via Twitter in December 2015, when Trump first announced his political candidacy. Alwaleed urged Trump to withdraw from the presidential race, calling him “a disgrace not only to the GOP but to all America.” Trump retorted with his typical impertinence, calling Alwaleed “dopey” and accused him of attempting to buy US politics with his “daddy’s money.” Alwaleed responded in January, poking fun at the fact that he bailed Trump out in the past. Alwaleed also donated to Clinton’s foundation as she prepared to run for president in 2015.

Once Trump won the presidency, Alwaleed did attempt to ingratiate himself with the new president of the US by congratulating Trump over Twitter for his victory. More recently, Alwaleed publicly endorsed Trump in an interview this October, attributing the boost in the stock market to him and commending him on his policies and way of governing.

Most recently and strikingly, Prince Alwaleed has been arrested in a brusque and dramatic anti-corruption crackdown unleashed by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. This crackdown happened on November 4th, almost immediately following Jared Kushner returning to the US after making an unannounced trip to Saudi Arabia near the end of October. Considering that Trump had put his son-in-law in charge of resolving the Israel-Palestine conflict, it is likely that Kushner had met with Crown Prince Salman in an effort to establish peace-building diplomatic relations. However, the lack of transparency surrounding the trip and the subsequent mass arrests indicate rising tensions within the Saudi government.

Alwaleed was among eleven royal princes arrested in the anti-corruption crackdown by the Saudi Arabian government. An additional 208 individuals were detained, although seven were released free of charge. While the Prince’s official statement is that they are attempting to crack down on money embezzlement and corruption within the Saudi Government, critics believe that this is a move to consolidate power and clear the way for his accession to the throne. Prince Salman is expected to take over, as the current King Salman bin Abdulaziz, his 81-year-old father, prepares to pass on his power.

Trump is publicly supportive of Prince Salman's assertiveness, declaring on Twitter that he has “great confidence” in them. The Trump administration’s noted friendliness with Saudi Arabia, in the form of Kushner’s friendship with Prince Salman and their support of this sudden power move in the Middle East speaks to the ties between the US and Saudi Arabian governments.

US support of Saudi Arabia is expected as Salman’s assertiveness can be seen as a future indicator of Saudi pressure against Iran, against whom the US has struggled to enforce sanctions. But how far will this relationship and support go? Personal relationships should not indicate predilections in international policy making and affairs, especially concerning the US-backed, Saudi-enforced blockade on Yemen and the resulting horrific famine that is afflicting about 20 million people. US complicity in this human rights violation through Trump’s endorsement of Prince Salman’s aggressive anti-Iranian stance and the United States’ acceptance of Saudi Arabia as an ally is unacceptable.  

Considering the hidden ties that bind between the Saudi Arabian royal family and Trump, Kushner, Manafort, and Barrack, all key figures within the Trump administration, these relationships hold troubling implications for the future of our nation in the Middle Eastern and global stage.


 

Key Figures Recap:

Paul Manafort – Recently indicted in Mueller’s Russia probe. Has had many business dealings with Saudi Arabia in the past. Was hired for Trump’s campaign due to the advice of Thomas Barrack.

Thomas Barrack – Arab-American businessman who is very close friends with Trump and the Kushners. He is also close friends with the Saudi royal family. Has done business with Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal.

Prince Alwaleed bin Talal – Saudi Arabian Prince and businessman who has bailed out Trump many times in the past and has unresolved beef with him. Recently arrested in an anti-corruption crackdown by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman – Expected to become King of Saudi Arabia Expected to become King of Saudi Arabia upon the death of his father. He is close friends with Jared Kushner.

Jared Kushner – Trump’s son-in-law. Is close with Thomas Barrack and Paul Manafort.