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Defending his position on Saudi Arabia, Trump's take needs work

Trump made it sound as if there's a price tag on the use of American military power, and he's comfortable with the fact that the Saudis pay cash.
Image: Donald Trump,Melania Trump
FILE - In this May 20, 2017, file photo, President Donald Trump shakes hands with Saudi Deputy Crown Prince and Defense Minister Mohammed bin Salman in...

Donald Trump took a few minutes on Monday to discuss his perspective on Saudi Arabia and why he's prepared to defend the Middle Eastern country in the wake of the attack on its oil-production facilities over the weekend. ABC News' Jonathan Karl, pointing to a tweet Trump published before his election, asked the president whether he still believes it's the responsibility of the Saudis to defend themselves.

This was Trump's answer in its entirety:

"I think it's certainly the responsibility of them to do a big -- a big deal of their defense, certainly. I also think it's the responsibility of the Saudis to, if somebody like us -- which are the ones -- are going to help them, they, I know, that monetarily will be very much involved in paying for that."This is something that's much different than other presidents would mention, Jon. But the fact is that the Saudis are going to have a lot of involvement in this if we decide to do something. They'll be very much involved, and that includes payment. And they understand that fully."

The Republican doesn't have a foreign policy, per se. He has transactions. In this case, Trump made it sound as if there's a price tag on the use of American military power, and he's comfortable with the fact that the Saudis pay cash.

In fact, the president was quite literal on this point. Asked at the same Oval Office meeting whether he's promised Riyadh that the United States will protect Saudi Arabia following the weekend's attack, Trump said he'd made no such promise, but he's "certainly" prepared to assist.

He added, "They've been a great ally. They spend $400 billion in our country over the last number of years. Four hundred billion dollars. That's a million and a half jobs. And they're not ones that, unlike some countries, where they want terms; they want terms and conditions. They want to say, 'Can we borrow the money at zero percent for the next 400 years?' No. No. Saudi Arabia pays cash."

Again, the implication here is that Trump sees a direct connection between the United States' willingness to use military force in the Middle East and the money foreign countries are willing to give us. From the American president's perspective, our military isn't for sale, but it may be for rent.

Compounding the problem, Trump is badly confused about the relevant details. Last fall, trying to defend his indifference to Jamal Khashoggi's assassination, the president said U.S. arms deals with Saudi Arabia would be worth "over 40,000" jobs. Then it was 450,000 jobs, which soon after became 500,000 jobs. Then it was 600,000 jobs, which became "over a million jobs."

As of two days ago, it was "a million and a half jobs," all of which sounds quite impressive, though the Republican has wildly exaggerated the scope and impact of the transactions.

But even putting that aside, I was especially struck by Trump's attempted boast: "This is something that's much different than other presidents would mention." There's some truth to that: other presidents have approved arms sales to Saudi Arabia in exchange for money. Trump is expanding the nature of the transactions: we sell Saudis weapons, the Saudis give us money, and then we'll tack on offers of additional military assistance, presumably in exchange of even more money.

Whether this "difference" from other presidents is a positive change is a matter of perspective.

Postscript: As New York's Jon Chait added yesterday, there's still some question about what might be going into the American president's pocket: 

The largest mystery hovering over Trump’s reversal is not how much the Saudis are paying the United States, but how much they’re paying Trump personally. "The Saudis spend extravagant sums of money at his hotels in Washington and New York. Earlier this summer, a Saudi entourage of more than two dozen stayed at Trump’s resort in Scotland. These are just some details that have leaked out piecemeal. The overall scope of Trump’s financial ties to the kingdom are opaque because Trump, with the support of the conservative movement and Republicans in Congress, refuses to disclose basic financial information."