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filthy lucre

donald trump has shown utter indifference to the possible torture and killing of an american-based journalist jamal khashoggi by saudi arabian security forces acting on the direction of saudi crown prince mohammed bin salman but that's hardly a surprise. he said on the campaign trail that he loved the saudis because they gave him money. he refused to consider placing saudis on his infamous "muslim travel ban" list, despite the fact that saudi arabia is the one country that has been credibly linked to the september 11 terrorist attacks. or that the saudis' particular brand of fundamentalist islam has been described as the root of the extremism espoused by groups like al-qaeda and isis.

trump likes wealthy people and the saudi royals are the blueprint of the type of wealthy people he likes. they spend and live in lavish excess. family members are like catnip for the international celebrity press, even if the news media [like khashoggi] are perceived as enemies of the state. they are also fearsome, which trump would so love to be. his family isn't big enough or powerful enough to have spawned the sort of murderous intrigues of the sauds, but even with him, there is the obvious hierarchy of children, from his golden girl ivanka through his adult sons, to his pre-teen youngest son, down to the almost totally rejected daughter of his least favoured second wife. sadly for donald, he doesn't have saud-level money to support three dozen offspring and bigamy is illegal in the united states. 

as trump emphasized in his remarks to the press, the guy in question wasn't even an american citizen. he just lived there. sort of like two of the misses trumps and his current in-laws, who gained their american citizenship through the "chain migration" that trump has promised to end. although he promised serious consequences should it be proven that the saudis were involved in khashoggi's murder, he still doesn't believe in man-made climate change and thought barack obama's birth certificate was fake. [or should we say he still thinks that?] one has to wonder exactly what it would take to make this man believe a fact he doesn't like. [you lost the popular vote, cheeto benito. -ed.]

with a chilling candour, trump told reporters that he wasn't about to endanger a hundred million dollars in arms spending and the jobs that it supported, over a journalist who wasn't even a real american. trump has since emphasized that khashoggi was a saudi, as if to say that this was a sort of domestic tiff and the united states had no business getting involved. this is one of the very few times when donald trump is being completely honest: he's done the math in his head and one murdered journalist does not have a value equal to one hundred million dollars.

there's no doubt that arms exports are incredibly important to the american economy and the saudis are going to need a lot of arms to maintain their grip on power in the coming years. media critics like khashoggi are hardly the only problem saudi arabia is facing: last year, they attempted to cripple their political rival qatar but the move has backfired spectacularly. more importantly, their relationship with a much greater regional rival, turkey, have become nearly toxic; crown prince mohammed bin salman earlier this year used a variation of a david frum tag line [written for and delivered by george w. bush], referring to turkey as part of a "triangle of evil". indeed, when news first started coming out of turkey about khashoggi, even al jazeera, whose shutdown had been one of the saudi conditions for ending the blockade against qatar, were circumspect. plus, of course, there's the ongoing saudi involvement in the civil war in yemen, which shows no sign of ending.

saudi arabia is going to need to buy a lot of arms in the near future and america stands to benefit. selling them those weapons will create jobs and bring a lot of money into the country. also, saudi arabia and israel seem to have bonded over their shared hatred of iran, which aligns with the current government's foreign policy. selling weapons to any nation is always an exercise in looking the other way and trump is far from the only world leader to decide that he could live with wiping the blood drops off his new money. [progressive darling justin trudeau honoured a contract to sell armoured vehicles, many equipped with military cannons.]

but is donald trump really standing by the saudi royal family because he thinks their millions will help americans? or is it more important which americans those millions help?

after all, trump had no problem cutting off millions of dollars worth of investment and trade in his attempts to look tough against canada, mexico, europe and china. it's still not clear what the effect of his policies in that regard will be, but one thing that is certain: trade with those nations involves far more money than the saudis could ever invest and it involves a much wider range of industries, with a much larger number of employees? trump succeeded in getting access to 3.6% of the canadian dairy market [up from the 3.25% they would have had access to under the trans-pacific partnership]. it's possible that the money generated through this may be offset by the effects of the "don't buy american" campaign that circulated through social media in the buildup to the nafta discussions. and that is nothing compared to the risks of facing off with china. how come the self-appointed saviour of america isn't worried about that money?

let's go back to that comment he made about how he loved the saudis in 2015: he didn't say that saudi arabia was an important partner for the united states. he didn't say that the saudis have invested a lot of money in the united states. he said they'd made money for him. indeed, trump created eight shell companies linked to jeddah saudi arabia shortly before he was elected, something he normally does before opening a property in a city. the companies were closed and the plan shelved, for now, because even mitch mcconnell would struggle to ignore that level of corruption. the saudi royal family continues to plow vast sums into trump properties, though, so there's no hard feelings. jared kushner's real estate startup has gone to the saudis cap in hand at the same time that kushner has been dealing with the saudis on behalf of the american government.

trump says that, if the united states alienates the saudis, there are several other countries that will make weapons for them. that's possible, but it's not like there are other options out there that have the facilities and expertise in arms manufacture as the americans. on the other hand, there are lots of other hoteliers and real estate moguls out there who are more than happy to take saudi money. [the importance of the saudis in maintaining trump's business becomes even more important if his other sugar daddy, russia, has to back away due to criminal investigations.]

as it turns out, though, there's someone else in the administration who's been the recent beneficiary of saudi largesse and it is just barely possibly that she might be willing to take a stand where trump has not.

linda mcmahon is a member of trump's cabinet as the head of the small business administration [an organization she once campaigned to eliminate by folding much of its work into the department of commerce]. linda is perhaps the cabinet's lowest-profile member and those who know her name probably know it from her decades as the chief executive officer of world wrestling entertainment [formerly the world wrestling federation]. she worked with her husband vince to build his father's wrestling business from a regional promoter to a multi-billion dollar monolith that truly has grown into its "world" moniker. there are wrestling promotions all over but everyone wants a piece of the wwe. including saudi arabia.

early this year, mcmahon's company inked a ten year deal with the saudi government worth half a billion dollars. the wwe would bring their biggest male stars to a no-holds-barred live show with matches that would be seen nowhere else. there was already unease around this deal among fans and some business observers; the wwe has taken major strides to redress its image with regards to women's wrestling in recent years, putting a massive emphasis behind a new cadre of female stars who a lot more than get in pillow fights in their underwear. but unlike the show they did in the united arab emirates last year, where costume designers created special outfits that allowed two of the company's top women to wrestle without causing offense, the saudi shows are a strict y-chromosome zone. [in fact, the company was forced to make a public apology after the first show when they aired a promo for an upcoming event in america that showed some of their women stars.]

there's also the issue that the wwe is being used as an amplifier for the government both internally and for an international audience. but that problem seemed a little more abstract before jamal khashoggi disappeared and was [putatively] murdered.

although the saudis originally said that the allegations that they did anything to the journalist were ridiculous, that position has become increasingly untenable. the turkish government released cctv footage that showed khashoggi entering the saudi embassy in turkey and have indicated that they have a lot more- flight manifests showing that the assassins came to turkey and left via a private jet and audio evidence that khashoggi was tortured, killed and dismembered that they intercepted via an apple watch he was wearing. [side note :: i really did not see any scenario arising where i thought of the erdogan government as the good guys, but this is the world in 2018.] the latest reports are that the saudis may be willing to go so far as to say that jamal khashoggi died accidentally during interrogation.

in the meantime, the wwe is set to host their second event in saudi arabia, the "crown jewel", on november 2nd. if the turkish government releases the audio recordings it says it has [i'm inclined to believe they will], millions of americans will hear at least excerpts of them, after which they will tune in to the wwe network for a distraction, only to have announcers breathlessly exclaiming about how the living superheroes of the wrestling world are torturing and killing each other in the city of jeddah. all that just four days before the midterm elections.

the wwe has said it's "monitoring the situation" vis-a-vis khashoggi, which is as bland and equivocal as anything that has ever come out of the mouth of a trump spokesperson. although it was reported over the weekend that the company had removed the saudi event from their website, they haven't. they've just kind of buried it in the event listings, which is so gutless that it might actually be worse than if they came out and said that they were taking the money and they didn't care if the crown prince hacked off someone's head in the ring to end the night.

we already know that donald trump will not stand up to the saudis because we know that's the kind of person that donald trump is. a person, someone who isn't even an american and who's a journalist is never going to be valued over his ability to make money. but we also know that donald trump has the backbone of a jellyfish. if someone he likes stands up to the saudis, he will not have the fortitude to block efforts to sanction the saudi government. it's not in his character.

we don't really know linda mcmahon. i mean, we know her political views from her two unsuccessful senate runs and from her support of trump [political and financial]. the mcmahons also donated more than a million dollars to a super pac organized specifically to fight and discredit senator bernie sanders. we know that she's a phenomenally successful businesswoman: she and her husband are self-made billionaires who have had an intensive, hands-on relationship with their company. they are the kind of people donald trump wants people to think he is.

even as one of the bosses, being a woman in the wrestling business cannot have been easy. so we can surmise that, unlike donald trump, linda mcmahon is extremely tough. tough in a way that the vast majority of us will never have to be.

with the date of the "crown jewel" show bearing down, linda mcmahon is in a prime position to have a tremendous political impact- possibly far more than she ever will in her cabinet position. she can use her skill and toughness to persuade her husband, her family and their company's investors that they should back off from the saudi agreement and wait until it's something they don't have to hide from their audience. that's going to be a significant personal loss, not just because they won't get those hundreds of millions, but because it will drag down their stock prices. [investors have been treating the saudi deal as a fait accompli for some time.] all of the mcmahons will lose a lot of money if they walk away now and they will potentially cut themselves off from the lucrative saudi market for years.

if one of his own cabinet members is willing to take that kind of stand, particularly one with whom he has such a long-standing personal relationship, donald trump will feel shamed into doing something, or at least to stop singing the saud family's praises.

alternately, administrator mcmahon could opt to shrug and say that she hasn't been involved with the wwe in an official capacity since 2009 and that the saudi deal has nothing to do with her. she could say that saudi arabia is not going to stop killing dissidents just so that they can see brock lesnar and the undertaker. she could say that any business operating on the level of the wwe and every national government deals shakes hands with monsters. any of those statements is truer than 90% of what comes out of donald trump's mouth.

but when we do choose to work with people we find morally bankrupt, most of us do so in parentheses: on the one hand, we want to think that there is a greater good at work- there will be more benefits to more people; on the other hand, we tell ourselves that there is a line we will not cross, that there are limits to our moral compromise.

donald trump doesn't worry about those things of course; personal benefit is the only reward he needs and he doesn't actually seem to have morals, especially when it comes to money. [i'm completely serious. in the thousands of hours of media coverage i've consumed of trump in the last few years, i cannot recall him ever expressing a moral conviction.]

does linda mcmahon worry about them? we don't know. but if she doesn't, i can guarantee you that the saud family will be happy to know that their crown jewels have enough sparkle to distract from any amount of blood underneath them.


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