Pompeo Stresses Friendship With Saudis, Amid Stormclouds

Secretary of State reinforces alliance with kingdom while discussing Yemen, Khashoggi

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met Monday with Saudi Arabia’s leaders, bearing a message of support for a close Trump administration ally at a time when the relationship is under pressure at home and abroad.

Mr. Pompeo met separately with King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at the royal court in the kingdom’s capital, telling reporters afterward that he raised at least two difficult issues—the war in Yemen and the 2018 killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at Saudi Arabia’s consulate in Istanbul.

On those issues and on allegations of Saudi human-rights abuses, Mr. Pompeo stressed the friendly nature of ties between Washington and Riyadh.

“The Saudis are friends, and when friends have conversations, you tell them what your expectations are,” he said.

Mr. Pompeo’s stop in Riyadh came near the end of a multination Middle East trip and took place as U.S. lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are calling for a re-evaluation of the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia, including its support for the Saudi-led military coalition in Yemen.

But Mr. Pompeo, smiling in brief public appearances with the Saudi leaders and other officials, adhered closely to the administration’s stance regarding Saudi Arabia since the Oct. 2 killing of Mr. Khashoggi. He pressed for accountability, but avoided personally blaming Prince Mohammed, who U.S. intelligence officials have concluded likely gave the order for the killing.

Mr. Pompeo and other officials consistently have emphasized the enduring nature of the U.S.-Saudi relationship and its vital role in countering Iran, a main thrust of Mr. Pompeo’s trip, which has included stops in Jordan, Iraq, Egypt, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Oman.

In Saudi Arabia, Mr. Pompeo said he broached the issue of human rights, but didn’t specifically address allegations that a Saudi crackdown on dissent has included acts of torture against jailed women’s-rights activists, including lashings and electric shocks.

On Yemen, the U.S. mission to the kingdom said on Twitter that Mr. Pompeo and the crown prince discussed the conflict and “agreed on need for continued de-escalation and adherence to Sweden agreements, especially cease-fire and redeployment in #Hudaydah,” referring to the Red Sea port city that is the gateway for the vast majority of the country’s food and aid.

The administration has accelerated its efforts to secure a peace agreement in Yemen, for a conflict that has killed tens of thousand of people and caused a humanitarian crisis.

Saudi Arabia and its allies have been battling Iran-backed Houthi rebels, who Riyadh sees as proxies of their rival Iran, and they have used U.S.-made bombs and intelligence assistance in their bid to defeat the group.

“We discussed with Pompeo the joint effort in fighting Iran’s expansionist policies that harm regional and international security,” former Saudi foreign minister Adel Al Jubeir said, according to the Saudi state-owned Ekhbariya news channel.

The officials discussed the crises in Yemen and Syria, the situation in the Red Sea region, and efforts to fight terrorism and extremism, Mr. Jubeir said, according to the channel.

Mr. Pomeo also addressed a pair of Twitter messages sent Sunday by President Trump in which he vowed to devastate Turkey’s economy if it targets Kurdish populations in northern Syria as the U.S. withdraws its forces. Mr. Trump called for a 20-mile safe zone between the Turkish border and U.S.-allied fighters, and also called upon America’s Kurdish allies not to provoke Turkey.

“The president’s aim there, I think, is the one that we’ve been talking about for some time. Which is that we want to make sure that the folks who fought with us to take down the caliphate and ISIS have security, and also that terrorists acting out of Syria aren’t able to attack Turkey,” Mr. Pompeo said, referring to Islamic State by an acronym.

The exact method of achieving these “twin aims” has yet to be determined, the secretary said. “If we can get a space—call it a buffer zone; others might have a different name for it—if we can get the space and the security arrangements right, this will be a good thing for everyone in the region.”

Mr. Pompeo planned to return to the U.S. earlier than planned to attend a family funeral, the State Department said on Monday. After departing Saudi Arabia, the secretary was traveling to Oman for meetings with leaders there, but planned to forgo a scheduled stop in Kuwait.

The secretary’s swing through the Middle East was aimed at reassuring partners and promoting a new regional alliance. Mr. Pompeo arrived in Riyadh from Doha, where the U.S. and Qatar held their second strategic dialogue.

During his remarks in Doha, the secretary pledged to continue trying to broker an agreement between Qatar and the four states—Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt—that have isolated the country over allegations of support for terrorism.

The schism threatens to derail U.S. plans to form a Middle East Strategic Alliance envisioned as a counterpart to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

Asked about his hosts’ reaction to his comments in Doha, Mr. Pompeo said the Saudis also hope to heal the rift with Qatar.

“We can certainly provide assistance and support, but at the end of the day those countries have to get it back together,” Mr. Pompeo said.

Who Is Behind Trump’s Links to Arab Princes? A Billionaire Friend

The billionaire financier Tom Barrack was caught in a bind.

.. Mr. Trump’s outspoken hostility to Muslims — epitomized by his call for a ban on Muslim immigrants — was offending the Persian Gulf princes Mr. Barrack had depended on for decades as investors and buyers.

.. Mr. Barrack, a longtime friend who had done business with the ambassador, assured him that Mr. Trump understood the Persian Gulf perspective. “He also has joint ventures in the U.A.E.!” Mr. Barrack wrote in an email on April 26.

.. During the Trump campaign, Mr. Barrack was a top fund-raiser and trusted gatekeeper who opened communications with the Emiratis and Saudis, recommended that the candidate bring on Paul Manafort as campaign manager — and then tried to arrange a secret meeting between Mr. Manafort and the crown prince of Saudi Arabia.

.. Investigators interviewed him in December but asked questions almost exclusively about Mr. Manafort and his associate Rick Gates

.. he has said he rebuffed offers to become treasury secretary or ambassador to Mexico.

.. He sought a role as a special envoy for Middle East economic development

.. Mr. Barrack’s company, known as Colony NorthStar since a merger last year, has raised more than $7 billion in investments since Mr. Trump won the nomination, and 24 percent of that money has come from the Persian Gulf — all from either the U.A.E. or Saudi Arabia

.. Mr. Barrack played as a matchmaker between Mr. Trump and the Persian Gulf princes.

.. “He is the only person I know who the president speaks to as a peer,” said Roger Stone, a veteran Republican operative who has known both men for decades. “Barrack is to Trump as Bebe Rebozo was to Nixon, which is the best friend,”

.. By 2010, he had acquired $70 million of the debt owed by Mr. Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, on his troubled $1.8 billion purchase of a skyscraper at 666 Fifth Avenue in New York. After a call from Mr. Trump, Mr. Barrack was among a group of lenders who agreed to reduce Mr. Kushner’s obligations to keep him out of bankruptcy.

.. Thomas J. Barrack Jr. and Donald J. Trump first met in the 1980s, and Mr. Barrack got the better of the encounters. He negotiated Mr. Trump into overpaying for two famous assets: a one-fifth stake in the New York department store chain Alexander’s in 1985, and the entire Plaza Hotel in 1988. Mr. Trump paid about $410 million for the Plaza and later lost both properties to creditors.

.. But Mr. Barrack nonetheless parlayed the deals into a lasting friendship, in part by flattering Mr. Trump about his skill as a negotiator.

“He played me like a Steinway piano,” Mr. Barrack recounted in a speech at the Republican convention.

.. people who know him well say he still tells new acquaintances that he is truly honored to meet them, cheerfully doling out superlatives like “first-class,” “amazing” and “brilliant.” He invariably tells the story of his own success as a parable about luck and perseverance, never about talent.

.. He grew up speaking Arabic as the son of Lebanese immigrants to Los Angeles

.. Mr. Barrack wrote back that Mr. Trump was “the king of hyperbole.”

.. “We can turn him to prudence,” Mr. Barrack wrote in an email. “He needs a few really smart Arab minds to whom he can confer — u r at the top of that list!”

.. Mr. Barrack had befriended Mr. Manafort in the 1970s, when they were both living in Beirut and working for Saudi interests.

.. Early in 2016, when Mr. Trump faced the prospect of a contested nomination fight at the Republican convention, Mr. Barrack had recommended Mr. Manafort for the job of campaign manager. “The most experienced and lethal of managers” and “a killer,” Mr. Barrack called him in a letter to Mr. Trump.

.. The Saudi prince had tried to reach the Trump campaign through “a midlevel person” at the rival private equity giant Blackstone

.. Mr. Barrack forwarded to the ambassador a message from Mr. Manafort with a “clarification” that modulated Mr. Trump’s call for a Muslim ban.

.. Mr. Barrack informed Ambassador Otaiba that the Trump team had also removed a proposed Republican platform provision inserted to “embarrass” Saudi Arabia. The provision had called for the release of redacted pages about the kingdom in a report on the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

.. When those two states imposed an embargo on their neighbor Qatar — home to a major United States air base — Mr. Trump broke with his own administration to throw his weight squarely behind the Saudis and Emiratis.

.. Until recently, Mr. Barrack’s most prominent Gulf customers were neither the Emiratis nor the Saudis — but their bitter rivals the Qataris

.. None of the Gulf investments that Mr. Barrack’s company has brought in since Mr. Trump’s nomination have come from Qatar.

 

What the FBI Raid on Michael Cohen Means for the Russia Investigation

Most important is the claim that he maintained a “covert relationship with Russia,” and that in August 2016 Cohen made a secret visit to Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic, where he reportedly met with senior Kremlin officials. According to the dossier, whose allegations are so far unproven, the Prague meeting was facilitated by Konstantin Kosachev, who heads the Russian Duma’s foreign-relations committee and who may have attended the meeting in person.

Most explosively, the dossier alleges that Cohen’s meeting in Prague in that late summer of 2016 included “secret discussions with Kremlin representatives and associated operators/hackers,” and that “the agenda comprised questions on how deniable cash payments were to be made to hackers who had worked in Europe under Kremlin direction against the CLINTON campaign and various contingencies for covering up these operations and Moscow’s secret liaison with the TRUMP team more generally.”

.. Sourced to a “Kremlin adviser,” the dossier report said that the meeting was originally planned for Moscow but was “shifted to what was considered an operationally ‘soft’ EU country when it was judged too compromising for him to travel to the Russian capital.” And it adds that Cohen’s wife “is of Russian descent and her father [is] a leading property developer in Moscow.” (Michael Cohen’s wife, Laura, is a Ukrainian of Russian descent, according to the dossier; his brother, Bryan, is also married to a Ukrainian; and, like Manafort, the Cohen family has business ties to Ukraine.)

.. So far, the report that Cohen met with Russians in Prague is unverified. Cohen has vigorously denied it, and he’s shown his passport, which lacks a Czech entry stamp, to reporters. However, according to a report by McClatchy, citing “two [unnamed] sources familiar with the matter,” Mueller “has evidence that Donald Trump’s personal lawyer and confidant, Michael Cohen, secretly made a late-summer trip to Prague during the 2016 presidential campaign.” The McClatchy report, by Peter Stone and Greg Gordon, two veteran investigative journalists, didn’t say whether Cohen met with Kosachev, but it did say that Mueller’s investigators unearthed the fact that Cohen traveled to Prague via Germany, meaning that his passport would not have needed a stamp from the Czech Republic.

.. Third, Cohen was involved in the still mostly unexplained “Ukraine peace plan” that reportedly ended up on the desk of Trump’s national security adviser, Michael Flynn, in February 2017 just before Flynn was forced to resign over his own contacts with Russia’s ambassador to the United States. The plan, organized outside regular diplomatic channels, was concocted by a Ukrainian politician, Andrii Artemenko, reportedly at the behest of top aides to President Putin. The plan, which would have resulted in eliminating or easing Western sanctions on Russia over its annexation of the Ukrainian province of Crimea, was cooked up in conjunction with Cohen and Sater. According to the New York Times report, Sater delivered the written plan to Cohen “in a sealed envelope,” and Cohen placed it in Flynn’s office.

.. Fourth, as The Wall Street Journal revealed in a stunning exposé, Cohen was the attorney who arranged a $1.6 million payoff to quiet a scandal involving an affair between Elliott Broidy, a top Republican Party fundraising official, and a Playboy Playmate. But Broidy has a part to play in the Russia scandal, too: Along with an operative named George Nader, who was picked up by federal agents at an airport and who’s now cooperating with Mueller’s office, Broidy was a principal in a scheme to boost US support for the United Arab Emirates over Qatar, in a tangled dispute among Arab nations of the Persian Gulf. Nader is an adviser to the UAE, and as the Times recently reported, Nader maintains business ties to Russia, including working on arms deals.

.. Meanwhile, the Times reported, Broidy “owns a private security company with hundreds of millions of dollars in contracts with the United Arab Emirates, and he extolled to Mr. Trump a paramilitary force that his company was developing for the country.” And it was Nader who arranged the secret meeting between Erik Prince, top UAE officials, and a Russian wheeler-dealer named Kirill Dmitriev, a meeting that Mueller is now investigating because it was apparently aimed at setting up some sort of back-channel links between Moscow and the incoming administration in Washington.

The Political Forces Behind Rex Tillerson’s Firing

a third, run out of a suite of well-appointed offices on M Street in Washington. Founded by neoconservative journalist Clifford May just after 9/11, the non-profit Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) has emerged as perhaps the most powerful outside influencer of the Trump White House today.

FDD is notorious: a self-styled “non-partisan policy institute,” the non-profit organization is funded primarily by right-wing supporters of Israel, including billionaire Sheldon Adelson, a close ally of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

.. Over the nearly two decades since its founding, FDD has

  • promoted the Iraq War,
  • banged the drum for an attack on Syria,
  • opposed the Obama administration’s nuclear negotiations with Iran,
  • extolled the virtues of Benjamin Netanyahu, and, at the beginning of this decade,
  • launched a crusade that targeted the tiny Persian Gulf country of Qatar where the U.S. maintains an airbase.

.. Tillerson, it turns out, was not only blindsided by the embargo, but, as was reported in these pages last June, suspected that Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner had known of the UAE’s plans, failed to notify him, and instead urged the president to endorse the UAE initiative, which Trump did. Tillerson was not only shocked, he was angry. “Rex put two-and-two together,” a close associate of Tillerson told TAC at the time, “and concluded that this absolutely vacuous kid [Kushner] was running a second foreign policy out of the White House family quarters. [UAE ambassador to the U.S.] Otaiba weighed in with Jared and Jared weighed in with Trump. What a mess.”

.. Tillerson’s efforts, while prodigious, failed to heal the rift between Qatar and its neighbors, but it clearly backfooted the anti-Qatar coalition, who’d hoped to pressure their neighbor into ending its relations with Iran, isolate Turkey (a strong Qatar supporter), and shutter the Doha-based Al Jazeera television network.

.. only deepened the uneasy alliance of forces arrayed against him. Those forces, according to emails leaked in early March by the BBC, now included Erik Prince sidekick Elliott Broidy, a U.S. businessman and Trump campaign donor with deep business ties to the UAE’s Mohammed bin Zayed. According to the emails, Broidy met with Trump in October and told him that Tillerson was “performing poorly and should be fired at a political convenient time.” The emails described Tillerson as “weak” and “a tower of jello” who needs to be “slammed.”

.. While Tillerson’s demise can be dated to the moment it was reported that he called the president a “moron” back in October, the clock actually started ticking the previous June, when Tillerson decided he would work to reverse the UAE-led embargo against Qatar. Which is why, within hours of Trump’s announcement that Tillerson was being shown the door, his enemies in the Gulf States held a mini-celebration. Among the celebrants was Abdulkhalez Abdullaa, a prominent UAE political science professor, who insinuated that his country could take credit for Tillerson’s demise. “History will remember that a Gulf state had a role in expelling the foreign minister of a superpower and that’s just the tip of the iceberg,” he wrote on Twitter.

.. FDD President Mark Dubowitz tweeted his approval of the move. “BREAKING,” he tweeted. “Trump ousts Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, will replace him with CIA Director Mike Pompeo.” Dubowitz linked the news to a Washington Post report on Tillerson’s ouster, but then CC’d the entry to three Iranian officials: “@khamenei_ir,” “@HassanRouhani,” and “@Jzarif “: Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Hosseini Khamenei, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.

Kushner’s overseas contacts raise concerns as foreign officials seek leverage

Officials in at least four countries have privately discussed ways they can manipulate Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser, by taking advantage of his complex business arrangements, financial difficulties and lack of foreign policy experience

.. Among those nations discussing ways to influence Kushner to their advantage were the United Arab Emirates, China, Israel and Mexico

.. H.R. McMaster, President Trump’s national security adviser, learned that Kushner had contacts with foreign officials that he did not coordinate through the National Security Council or officially report.

.. The issue of foreign officials talking about their meetings with Kushner and their perceptions of his vulnerabilities was a subject raised in McMaster’s daily intelligence briefings

.. Kushner’s lack of government experience and his business debt were seen from the beginning of his tenure as potential points of leverage that foreign governments could use to influence him

.. Officials in the White House were concerned that Kushner was “naive and being tricked”

.. conversations with foreign officials, some of whom said they wanted to deal only with Kushner directly and not more experienced personnel

.. White House officials said McMaster was taken aback by some of Kushner’s foreign contacts.

.. Kushner came to his position with an unusually complex set of business holdings and a family company facing significant debt issues.

.. Officials from the UAE identified Kushner as early as the spring of 2017 as particularly manipulable because of his family’s search for investors in their real estate company

.. Not fully disclosing foreign contacts ordinarily would result in a clearance being denied, experts said.

.. One of his top business concerns was what to do with his family’s investment in 666 Fifth Ave. in New York, which the company bought under his direction for $1.8 billion in 2007, the highest price paid at the time for a U.S. office tower

.. leaving the company with a $1.2 billion debt that comes due in January 2019.

.. The Manhattan property has been a particularly nettlesome problem inside the government because Kushner’s company has sought foreign money on the project.

.. Kushner and his company had proposed a redevelopment plan that would double the building’s size, requiring major new investment.

.. They met with an executive of a Chinese-run insurance company, Anbang

.. They also discussed a possible investment by the former finance minister of Qatar

.. Questions have also been raised about whether Kushner discussed financing with a Russian banker. He met in December 2016 with Sergey Gorkov

.. The bank has said they talked about “promising business lines and sectors,”

.. With the deadline for the $1.2 billion debt looming, the company has continued to search for a lender. The redevelopment plan appears to be on hold

.. The company, which is privately held, has stressed that the Fifth Avenue property is a small fraction of its assets and that it is doing well financially.

President Trump Picks Sides, Not Diplomacy, in the Gulf

President Trump’s impetuousness and his simplistic view of American interests have again put national security at risk. He has taken sides with Saudi Arabia and four other Sunni states in their attempt to isolate and bully Qatar, the tiny gulf nation that is arguably America’s most important military outpost in the region.

.. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Bahrain and Yemen chose to cut ties to Qatar for a number of reasons .. principally because Qatar has a relatively close relationship with the Sunni states’ greatest rival, Shiite Iran.

.. even if his goal is to isolate Iran, allying with Saudi Arabia to punish Qatar is a self-defeating way to go about it: Qatar is home to the forward headquarters of the United States Central Command and is a major intelligence hub. It hosts Al Udeid Air Base, with more than 11,000 U.S. and coalition forces.

There is no sign that Mr. Trump has actually thought any of this through.

.. It is true that Qatar, like Saudi Arabia, can be a troublesome partner, but Saudi Arabia’s complaint about Qatar and terrorism is hypocritical. Qatar has long been accused of funneling arms and money to radical groups in Syria, Libya and other Arab countries. But so has Saudi Arabia

.. Qatar has a reason to work with Iran: They share a large natural gas field in the Persian Gulf. At the same time, Qatar is helping a Saudi-led coalition fight the Iranian-linked Houthi rebels in Yemen, and backing insurgents fighting an Iranian ally, President Bashar al-Assad of Syria.

.. Even the $110 billion weapons package he signed in Riyadh turned out to be fantasy, a collection of letters of interest or intent, not contracts, all begun during the Obama administration

.. Legislation blocking this deal is working its way through Congress. At a minimum, lawmakers should refuse to resupply the Saudis with precision-guided munitions that are killing civilians in Yemen and implicating America in the process. Even better would be to hold up the package until the Saudis enter into serious negotiations on Yemen and resolve their differences with Qatar.