Donald Trump came to national prominence with his best-selling 1987 book, "The Art of the Deal." As President, he is perfecting the art of the giveaway.
Take how he is approaching Jamal Khashoggi's murder, which the CIA concluded was ordered by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, widely known as MBS.
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The CIA assessed that a resident of Virginia working for the Washington Post was dismembered by Saudi officials acting on orders of MBS.
In an ordinary administration, that would have been carefully considered and likely leveraged to try to achieve multiple US goals in the greater Middle East.
But this is an administration run by an impulsive President who doesn't overly trouble himself with facts.
And so, on Tuesday, Trump released a statement saying he was all-in with MBS because of what he contended were the hundreds of thousands of jobs that the Saudis were creating in the States and the huge arms deals that the US has negotiated with them.
This is a classic case of believing your own propaganda. The jobs likely to be created in the US and the arms deals are both small potatoes.
Trump's all-in support for MBS is not distinguished by its transactional nature. After all, many previous American presidents also gave the Saudis a pass because US interests in the Middle East almost always trumped human rights concerns. In an emblematic interview about the Saudis with CNN's Fareed Zakaria in 2015, President Barack Obama observed, "Sometimes we have to balance our need to speak to them about human rights issues with immediate concerns that we have in terms of countering terrorism or dealing with regional stability."
What distinguishes Trump's embrace of MBS is that other presidents would have taken advantage of this international outrage to get some American wins on the board.
Those wins would include:
- Ending the disastrous Saudi-led war in Yemen
- Lifting the Saudi-led blockade of its neighbor and US ally Qatar
- The release of jailed Saudi civil society activists who face execution
- And significant Saudi funding for the reconstruction of Iraq and Afghanistan.
To be sure, some of Trump's cabinet members, such as Defense Secretary James Mattis and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, have sought to pressure the Saudis to end the Yemen war.
But Trump himself has squandered this moment of maximum leverage with MBS. Trump has signaled that the young crown prince has a free hand at home to imprison and execute and can continue his overseas adventurism with no more than a slap on the wrist.
The art of the giveaway was also demonstrated by the Trump administration's decision in May to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. This has long been a central goal of the Israeli government. But every other US administration has punted on this to avoid losing American influence with the Palestinians. Trump ordered the embassy move while extracting no concessions from the Israeli government, such as ceasing or even slowing its settlement-building in Palestinian territory.
After the embassy move, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas declared that Americans negotiating a peace deal led by Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, could no longer be considered honest brokers. Meanwhile, Kushner has yet to release his Middle East peace plan after two years of effort.
The art of the giveaway is also unfolding in Trump's much-vaunted negotiations with North Korea. Trump has declared "there is no longer a nuclear threat from North Korea" and that he and the country's dictator, Kim Jong Un, have even fallen "in love." Meanwhile, the North Korean ballistic missile program seems to be accelerating, according to the New York Times. And the Washington Post reports that US intelligence has concluded that North Korea plans to hide elements of its nuclear weapons program.
Of course, the art of the giveaway reached its apotheosis with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Trump embraces Putin at every turn despite conclusions of his own intelligence community that Putin ordered interference in the 2016 presidential election -- and the British assessment that the attempted assassination of a Russian defector was ordered at a senior level of Russia.
The grim apogee of the art of giveaway took place in September at the Helsinki summit between Trump and Putin. Trump stood next to Putin and declared of the interference in the 2016 presidential election, "He just said it's not Russia. I will say this: I don't see any reason why it would be."
Trump could have used the Helsinki meeting as the moment to tell Putin to knock off interfering with American elections. Instead, he gave him a free pass to do so.
Trump is particularly susceptible to authoritarian regimes. Kim, MBS and Putin are dictators to whom Trump always gives the benefit of doubt. They all play Trump like a Stradivarius, writing him "beautiful letters" (Kim) and assuring him that his own intelligence community's conclusions about Khashoggi and about the election are false (MBS and Putin.)
By contrast, Trump harangues and insults leaders of Western democracies that are longtime US allies, such as Canada, France, Germany, Mexico and the United Kingdom. To what strategic purpose it's never been clear.
Perhaps when he is tending his future Trump Presidential Library, Trump will find a ghostwriter to help him with a memoir entitled: "The Art of the Giveaway."
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