Members Only | October 17, 2018 | Reading Time: 7 minutes

The Khashoggi Story Isn’t Only about Human Rights. It’s about Emoluments, Too.

Now would be a good time to see President Donald Trump’s tax returns.

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If the Wall Street Journal is right, the president already knows that Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi was murdered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Yet he’s saying anything that comes to mind to protect America’s ally in the region. Why?

The newspaper reported this morning that Saudi operatives “beat, drugged, killed and dismembered” Khashoggi “in the presence of the kingdom’s top diplomat.” It reported that Turkey “shared evidence in recent days, including the details of an audio recording, with both the US and Saudi Arabia to support their conclusion.” It said Khashoggi “wasn’t interrogated.” He was seized on entering the building.

On the recording, a voice can be heard inviting the consul to leave the room, the people familiar with the matter said. The voice of a man Turkish authorities identified as Saudi forensic specialist Salah Al Tabiqi can be heard recommending other people present to listen to some music while he dismembered Mr. Khashoggi’s body, the people said.

Donald Trump, meanwhile, is deflecting attention away from the Saudi government, especially the 33-year-old Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, known as MbS. (Those operatives, by the way, are chummy with the prince.) The president has said he doesn’t care what foreign governments do to their people, that his administration will not judge, and that he doesn’t think the murder of a journalist is reason enough to halt arms sales to the kingdom. On Fox Business last night, he said:

“So we’re not really hurting them, we’re hurting ourselves. So we want to be smart. I don’t want to give up a $110 billion order or whatever it is … You’re talking about jobs. What I’m doing is, we’ve created an incredible economy. I want Boeing and I want Lockheed and I want Raytheon to take those orders and to hire lots of people to make that incredible equipment.”

Hours before that, Trump told the Associated Press:

“I think we have to find out what happened first. Here we go again with, you know, you’re guilty until proven innocent. I don’t like that. We just went through that with Justice Kavanaugh and he was innocent all the way as far as I’m concerned.”

But, if the WSJ is correct, the US already knew.

So far, the contours of the Khashoggi story have been about human rights and diplomacy. Should the US look the other way while the Saudis murder a dissident? Should the US surrender its moral capital, and that of its Western allies, for the sake of a few hundred jobs? Should the US compromise its leadership role by standing with barbarism? Should the US privilege “interests” over “values,” as critics have asked?

These are important questions. What’s missing, though, is the president’s literal material interests. This story isn’t just about one country’s tense relationship with another country over an international incident. This is about one country’s leverage over the leader of another. Put another way, this is what our nation’s founders feared: that a duly elected president could have material incentive to commit treason.

For instance (via Business Insider):

  • Saudi Crown Prince Alwaleed bin-Talal purchased Trump’s 282-foot yacht “Princess” for $20 million in 1991 (Trump was nearing bankruptcy at the time) and was part of a group that purchased the financially troubled Plaza Hotel for $325 million in 1995.

  • In 2016, the New York Daily News reported that the Saudi government also purchased the entire 45th floor of the Trump World Tower, for $4.5 million, in June 2001. Given annual fee fares for the building at the time, Trump also was paid $5.7 million by the Saudis between the purchase and 2016, the paper reported.

  • The most recent example came last year, as The Washington Post reported in August that a visit from Saudi officials to Trump’s Trump International Hotel in New York City helped boost the hotel’s quarterly revenue by 13 percent in 2018’s first quarter.

The New Yorker’s John Cassidy wrote Tuesday that when the president perceives that his interests are at risk, “he will say pretty much anything, regardless of how outrageous it sounds. Often, he is deliberately outrageous.” Cassidy was talking about his political, not material, interests, but the claim can be applied to both. Kavanaugh’s confirmation had political stakes that might justify saying something deliberately outrageous. Can the same be said with respect to Saudi money?

I can’t say I know what kind of injury the US would endure should it be revealed that Trump was paid, in effect, to look the other way while a permanent resident of the US was butchered by a country claiming to be our ally. I don’t know if that’s treason. But the emoluments clause of the United States Constitution was designed expressly to prevent the president from being compromised materially. It says that:

“No Title of Nobility shall be granted by the United States: And no Person holding any Office of Profit or Trust under them, shall, without the Consent of the Congress, accept of any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince, or foreign State.”

We know a lot about Donald Trump’s material stake in Saudi Arabia, but not enough. That’s why the Khashoggi isn’t only about human rights, international diplomacy and Realpolitik. It’s about this moment being a good time, like so many times before, to see this president’s federal tax returns. The Times asked Tuesday if the Democrats would seek the release of his tax returns should they take the House in November.

But the question isn’t would.

It’s should. And the answer is yes.


They cut off his fingers and head

As I was writing this, the Times said a Turkish newspaper released audio showing Saudi operatives seizing Jamal Khashoggi as he entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul and immediately cutting off his fingers. “This is how thugs tell a writer he will never write again,” wrote Times Middle East Editor Herbert Buchsbaum.

The Times reported:

As they cut off Mr. Khashoggi’s head and dismembered his body, a doctor of forensics who had been brought along for the dissection and disposal had some advice for the others, according to the senior Turkish official.

Listen to music, he told them, as he put on headphones himself. That was what he did to ease the tension when doing such work, the official said, describing the contents of the audio recording.

You might have noticed a pattern.

Those who act cruelly or commit actual crimes, including murder and rape, do not inspire Donald Trump’s condemnation, not if he is getting something in return. If he’s getting nothing, he feels free to unleash torrents of condemnation.

Women are pigs, black people are thugs, immigrants are animals.

But pedophiles (Roy Moore) are good people, literal fascists (Richard Spencer) are nice, and cold-blooded killers are OK—as long as they give something to the president for his trouble, whether that something is political capital or tens of millions in cash.

It’s little wonder how this president can sleep at night knowing that agents of the state are kidnapping children at the border and putting them up for adoption, that a Supreme Court justice got off scot-free for alleged sexual assault, that he and his billionaire buddies are extracting billions from the body politic while school teachers spend what little money they earn on pencils, pens, erasers, and notebooks.

We are in a moment in which the old political order is giving way to a new one. While I don’t know what the new one will hold, the old one has all the marks of a regime running on empty. The dominant party has run out of ideas. The previous political consensus has collapsed. Corruption, decadence and decay are the coin of the realm.

If the Democrats want to return to power, if the Democrats want to appeal broadly, it’s hard to think of a better position to take than anti-corruption. Given the president’s extreme deference to Saudi Arabia, and given the kingdom is “the largest single investor for US startups,” according to the Wall Street Journal, now is a good time to the party to hold aloft such corruption to say enough, enough, enough!


Republicans show how to repeal the Emoluments clause without amending the United States Constitution—by ignoring it


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John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition open and available to all. Find him @johnastoehr.

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