On 2 October 2018, journalist Jamal Khashoggi disappeared during a visit to Saudi Arabia’s consulate in Instanbul, Turkey. Although foul play was suspected, the Saudi government at first denied that any harm had been done to the journalist. Then they began releasing conflicting accounts, beginning with the claim that Khashoggi died accidentally in a “fistfight.”
Ultimately, the Saudis acknowledged that evidence provided by Turkish investigators pointed to his being slain in a “premeditated” attack, which they said was undertaken in a “rogue operation” not authorized by the Saudi royal family. Two senior government officials were dismissed, and 18 Saudi nationals allegedly involved in the murder were arrested.
President Trump was criticized in the immediate aftermath of Khashoggi’s disappearance for his apparent reluctance to hold the Saudis responsible for the incident. “We want to find out what happened,” he said. But he also maintained that the United States’ relations with the kingdom were “excellent” and he would not consider stopping arms sales to Saudi Arabia despite calls from members of Congress to do so.
Various commentators, including Washington Post contributor Brian Klaas, suggested that Trump’s official dealings with Saudi Arabia are “compromised by deep financial conflicts of interest”:
His business interests — past, present, and future — make it impossible for him to contemplate the kind of consequences that the Saudis deserve. In 1991, when Trump was $900 million in debt, he was bailed out by a member of the Saudi royal family, who purchased his 281-foot yacht, Trump Princess. Trump’s other princess, Ivanka, is married to Jared Kushner, who has deep ties to the crown prince. In 2015, when asked about his relationship with the Saudis, Trump said: “I get along great with all of them. They buy apartments from me. They spend $40 million, $50 million. Am I supposed to dislike them? I like them very much.”
As recently as December 2016, Trump owned companies in Saudi Arabia, as he sought to build a hotel there. Three days after Trump’s inauguration, lobbyists working for the Saudi government funneled $270,000 directly to the Trump Organization by booking rooms at his Washington hotel. More recently, Trump’s flagging Manhattan hotel got bailed out thanks to a lucrative visit from none other than the Saudi crown prince.
It raises the disturbing possibility that Saudi Arabia will get away with abduction or murder because the president is beholden to Saudi money.
Trump responded by tweeting that he has no financial interests in Saudi Arabia:
For the record, I have no financial interests in Saudi Arabia (or Russia, for that matter). Any suggestion that I have is just more FAKE NEWS (of which there is plenty)!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 16, 2018
That same day, Fox News Research (a Fox News Twitter account that regularly posts newsworthy data) tweeted a list highlighting some of Trump’s business relationships with the Saudis:
Trump & Saudi Business:
•1991: Sold yacht to Saudi Prince
•2001: Sold 45th floor of Trump World Tower to Saudis
•Jun 2015: I love the Saudis…many in Trump Tower
•Aug 2015: “They buy apartments from me…Spend $40M-$50M”
•2017: Saudi lobbyists spent $270K at Trump DC hotel
— Fox News Research (@FoxNewsResearch) October 16, 2018
Shortly afterward, Trump’s tweet and the Fox News tweet were combined into a meme and unleashed on Facebook:
The meme presented the Fox News tweet as a refutation of Trump’s, but although each of the former’s statements can be confirmed via reliable sources, they don’t necessarily disprove President Trump’s claim that he has no financial interests in Saudi Arabia.
The sticking point (and the reason we’re rating the claim a mixture of true and false) is that the term “financial interests” usually denotes the ownership of property or investments in a given place, company, or industry. We have found no evidence that either Trump or Trump Organization (the umbrella company operated by Trump’s sons, Donald Jr. and Eric), currently owns property or investments in Saudi Arabia.
According to Federal Election Commission (FEC) filings, the Trump Organization was pursuing plans to open businesses in Saudi Arabia as recently as 2016, but the Associated Press reported in October 2018 that the companies had been shut down by the time Trump took office:
Shortly after he announced his run for president, Trump began laying the groundwork for possible new business in the kingdom. He registered eight companies with names tied to the country, such as “THC Jeddah Hotel Advisor LLC” and “DT Jeddah Technical Services,” according to a 2016 financial disclosure report to the federal government. Jeddah is a major city in the country.
“Saudi Arabia, I get along with all of them. They buy apartments from me. They spend $40 million, $50 million,” Trump told a crowd at an Alabama rally on Aug. 21, 2015, the same day he created four of the entities. “Am I supposed to dislike them? I like them very much.”
The president’s company, the Trump Organization, said shortly after his 2016 election that it had shut down those Saudi companies. The president later pledged to pursue no new foreign deals while in office.
In a statement this week, the company said it has explored business opportunities in many countries but that it does “not have any plans for expansion into Saudi Arabia.”
There is no question that Trump has profited from business dealings with the Saudis, however. Let’s take the items in the Fox News Research list one by one:
1991: Sold yacht to Saudi Prince
Fortune reported in 2017 that Trump, facing financial difficulties in 1991, sold a yacht he purchased from the Sultan of Brunei in the 1980s to Saudi Arabia’s Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal.
2001: Sold 45th floor of Trump World Tower to Saudis
The Associated Press reported that the Kingdom of Saudi purchased the entire 45th floor of Trump World Tower in New York City in 2001, “the biggest purchase in that building to that point.”
June 2015: I love the Saudis … many in Trump Tower
During a 16 June 2015 speech at Trump Tower announcing his presidential candidacy, Trump said: “Saudi Arabia, they make $1 billion a day. $1 billion a day. I love the Saudis. Many are in this building.” At a campaign rally one month later, he said: “I like the Saudis; they are very nice. I make a lot of money with them. They buy all sorts of my stuff — all kinds of toys from Trump. They pay me millions and hundreds of millions.”
August 2015: “They buy apartments from me … Spend $40M-$50M”
At a campaign rally in Mobile, Alabama in August 2015, Trump said: “Saudi Arabia, I get along with all of them. They buy apartments from me. They spend $40 million, $50 million. Am I supposed to dislike them? I like them very much.”
2017: Saudi lobbyists spent $270K at Trump D.C. hotel
The Wall Street Journal reported in June 2017 that Trump International Hotel Washington, D.C., received payments amounting to roughly $270,000 for services provided to lobbyists working for the Saudi government. Although Trump had announced earlier in the year that any Trump Organization profits from foreign governments would be donated to the U.S. Treasury, the company did not respond to the Journal‘s questions about what would be done with the Saudi payments, which were made through a third party.
Despite his not owning businesses, properties, or investments in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Trump has clearly, and by his own admission, profited to the tune of tens of millions of dollars from business dealings with the Saudis, and over a long period of time.
We reached out to the Trump Organization for comment but received no reply.
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The Hill. 5 August 2017.
Condon, Bernard et al. “‘I Love the Saudis’: Trump Business Ties to Kingdom Run Deep.”
Associated Press. 16 October 2018.
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The Washington Post. 11 October 2018.
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