The White House statement that defended Saudi Arabia in the killing of dissident Jamal Khashoggi was attributed to President Donald Trump. But all Rand Paul heard when he read it was John Bolton.
“It came out sounding like Bolton’s voice to me,” Paul, in an interview Tuesday, said of the president’s hawkish national security adviser. “The problem is the president’s instincts on these things very often are good, but he’s often surrounded by people from the foreign policy swamp. And Bolton is the king of the swamp.”
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The Kentucky Republican doesn’t break with Trump much these days, but the president’s statement propping up American support for Saudi Arabia and its crown prince, Mohammad bin Salman, was too much for one of the president’s closest allies in Congress. Paul said he will redouble his efforts to block arm sales to Saudi Arabia, which Trump touted repeatedly in his statement raising doubts about whether bin Salman was at all involved in Khashoggi’s killing.
So although Trump portrayed Saudi Arabia’s $110 billion plans to buy American arms as a massive jobs program, Paul said the president should reassess his approach to how he views the country’s relationship with Saudi Arabia. He said it’s not punishment to stop the arm sales, but instead an affirmation that the United States shouldn’t “reward” Saudi Arabia for the “butchering of a dissident.”
And Paul disputed Trump’s reliance on the idea that Iran is worse than Saudi Arabia, so the United States should side with Saudi Arabia. Paul argues that the United States has repeatedly erred by playing favorites in the Middle East, while Paul argues the United States shouldn’t try to make such moral decisions.
“The president’s statement looked like he was basically saying ‘Saudi Arabia is bad, but Iran is worse.’ The lesser of two evils doesn’t deserve our weapons,” Paul said. “I did talk to him last week, and I reiterated my position on this and that we shouldn’t sell them arms and that we shouldn’t look at arms sales as job programs sales.”
“We’re too blind to our fear-slash-loathing of Iran that we do foolish things,” he added.
Paul said he has his staff scour the Congressional Record each day, looking for a notice of arm sales to Saudi Arabia that would trigger his ability to block it. He estimated he will have a majority of senators in both parties on his side, though he’s not sure whether he can accrue a veto-proof majority to stop the sales and override the president.
But he’s confident there will be another referendum in the Senate, and he’s still bullish on his prospects.
“At some point in time, all of this will have to come forward, there is no way they can get by without a vote,” Paul said.
On Tuesday, in the immediate wake of Trump’s statement, with Congress gone and Washington beginning to clear out for Thanksgiving, Paul’s supporters were mostly Democrats. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) said Trump’s avoidance of blaming bin Salman is a “stain on our democracy,” and Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) said the president sided with a “murderous regime over patriotic American intelligence officials.”
Paul would never put it that way, despite his pointed disagreement with Trump. And he said that despite being at odds with the president on a key foreign policy decision, he doesn’t expect his relationship with Trump to change.
“I don’t think he takes things personally, to tell you the truth, unless they’re personal. I’ve been a big defender of the president if there are any partisan attacks,” Paul said. “On issues, we’ve had lots of disagreements. … I don’t think this will bother him at all.”