When Saudi Arabia’s Mohammad bin Salman effectively launched a coup and unseated his political rival in June, President Donald Trump took private credit. “We’ve put our man on top!” Trump told his friends, writes Michael Wolff in his forthcoming book, “Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House.”
Saudi Arabia’s King Salman had ousted his nephew Mohammad bin Nayef as crown prince and replaced him with his then-31-year-old son, bin Salman, shaking up the line of succession and turning on decades of custom within the royal family. The move was announced in the dead of night and was just another step in bin Salman’s rise to power in the kingdom in recent years. The king also removed bin Nayef, once a powerful figure in the country’s security apparatus, from his post as interior minister.
Just a month earlier, Trump had visited Saudi Arabia on his first overseas trip, meeting with leaders from across the Middle East and signing a $110 billion aspirational arms deal with the kingdom’s leaders. When bin Salman was named crown prince, Trump called and congratulated him on his “recent elevation.”
Wolff describes Trump’s Saudi trip as a “get-out-of-Dodge godsend,” as it was an escape from Washington shortly after the president fired FBI Director James Comey. “There couldn’t have been a better time to be making headlines far from Washington. A road trip could transform everything.”
The book is based on 18 months of interviews and access to Trump and his senior staff. But Wolff has a history of being an unreliable narrator, and questions have already been raised about the veracity of his claims. Trump, for his part, is outraged by the book, which contains damning passages about him and his family, attributed to the president’s former chief strategist Steve Bannon. The president’s lawyer has demanded that Wolff and his publisher cease and desist publication of the book.
Bannon, speaking at a Washington think tank in October, made a connection between Trump’s Saudi visit and the change in succession. “If you look at Saudi Arabia, they’ve had a pretty big fundamental change since the summit,” Bannon said. “The deputy crown prince is now the crown prince. I think it was two weeks ago or three weeks ago, there were 1,000 clerics rounded up or put under house arrest or whatever. I realize that the opposition party in the New York Times refer to most of them as ‘liberal scholars.’”
Trump invited bin Salman to the White House in March, in what Wolff says was an “aggressive bit of diplomacy.” The Saudi royal was “using this Trump embrace as part of his own power play in the kingdom. And the Trump White House, ever denying this was the case, let him.” In exchange, Wolff writes, bin Salman “offered a basket of deals and announcements that would coincide with” Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia, giving the president a “win.”
The president’s son-in-law and trusted adviser Jared Kushner is said to be close to bin Salman. Kushner visited Saudi Arabia in October, where he and the crown prince stayed up until nearly 4 a.m. several nights, “swapping stories and planning strategy,” the Washington Post reported. A few days later, bin Salman arrested nearly a dozen members of Saudi’s ruling elite.
Just weeks before bin Salman assumed the role of crown prince, Saudi Arabia had cut diplomatic relations with Qatar and launched a blockade against the neighboring peninsula. Trump took credit for the move on Twitter.
During my recent trip to the Middle East I stated that there can no longer be funding of Radical Ideology. Leaders pointed to Qatar – look!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 6, 2017
Bin Salman has played a leading role in the kingdom’s two-year war on Yemen, and since November, he’s led a shakedown against his political rivals and other Saudi elites, hundreds of whom have been detained at Riyadh’s Ritz-Carlton hotel ever since.
Trump tweeted his approval.
I have great confidence in King Salman and the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, they know exactly what they are doing….
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 6, 2017