Here’s a little presidential-election campaign throwback.
When then-candidate Donald Trump visited Greensboro in June 2016 — two days after the Pulse nightclub shooting — he made an overt appeal to voters’ Islamophobia as a wedge to peel off support from LGBTQ+ people and women from his opponent, Hillary Clinton.
“She’s no friend of women,” Trump said. “And she’s no friend of LGBT Americans. No friend, believe me. And how can you be a friend when you take many, many millions of dollars from these countries — $25 million from one country, they think. And how can you be a friend when these countries are oppressing to LGBT, when they’re oppressing to everybody? How can you be a friend? How can you be a friend to women when you take that kind of money from people who enslave women?”
Based on the $25 million figure, Trump was likely referring to Saudi Arabia, which donated that amount to the Clinton Foundation, run by Hillary Clinton’s husband.
Trump’s misgivings about Saudi Arabia were short-lived, of course.
He chose the gulf kingdom as the first foreign country to visit as president, and announced a $350 billion arms sale there. When it became evident that the Saudi Arabian government had murdered Jamal Khashoggi, a dissident journalist employed by the Washington Post in 2018, Trump told NBC News: “I’m not like a fool that says, ‘We don’t want to do business with them.’”
And in contrast to his campaign rhetoric browbeating Clinton during the 2016 campaign for her reluctance to say, “Islamic terrorism,” Trump displayed rare restraint after a Saudi Air Force officer killed three Americans during a shooting at a Florida naval base in December 2019. While the US government has classified the shooting as an “act of terrorism,” Trump was quick to tweet out that he was assured by the Saudi head of state that “this person in no way shape or form represents the feelings of the Saudi people.”
I bring this up not to try to persuade Trump’s supporters that they’ve been duped or to score points with card-carrying members of the Resistance, so much as to observe how utterly consistent Trump’s hypocrisy on Saudi Arabia is with previous administrations.
An eye-opening report in New York Times Magazine on Sunday includes a passage describing family members of those killed in the Sept. 11 terror attacks visiting Trump in the White House on the anniversary last year, each of them quietly asking the president to release the documents from the FBI’s investigation into the plot.
“It’s done,” Trump reportedly reassured them. But then, the Times reports, contrary to Trump’s assurances, Attorney General William Barr blocked disclosure of documents relevant to the investigation that began more than 18 years ago, writing that doing so risked “significant harm to the national security.”
The family members hoped to access the FBI documents in order to marshal evidence in a civil lawsuit against the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia — something opposed by Trump, and before him, by President Obama.
It’s no secret that 15 out of the 19 hijackers, along with Osama bin Laden, were Saudi nationals. The question of whether Saudi officials knew about the attacks in advance or may have provided some measure of support to the hijackers has hovered over the FBI investigation for the past two decades. There is also the question of whether officials in the upper perches of the US national security establishment may have stymied the investigation to protect an important ally, while simultaneously launching a war against another predominantly Muslim country, Iraq, which had no involvement in 9/11.
In the fall of 2007, I took a road trip with a friend and fellow journalist, Sander Hicks, to Shreveport, La. We went there to speak with the family and friends of a local dentist, Dr. David M. Graham, who died in 2004 under mysterious circumstances, but left behind a document claiming that he met two of the hijackers, Nawaf al-Hazmi and Fayez Bannihamad, prior to 9/11.
The activities of Hazmi and Khalid al-Midhar, another future hijacker, after their arrival in the United States in early 2000, take up considerable space in the recent Times article. Investigators took interest in Hazmi and Midhar’s interactions in southern California with another Saudi man named Omar al-Bayoumi, who was already on the FBI’s radar.
“Bayoumi is one of the several mysterious figures in 9/11 whose story has yet to be told,” retired Sen. Bob Graham, co-chair of the joint congressional inquiry, told me in 2007. “What we know about Bayoumi is that he was an accountant by training, had worked for the Saudi Arabian civil aviation authority. In the mid-’90s he was transferred to San Diego, and moved his employment from the civil aviation authority to a firm that had contracts with the civil aviation authority. He was what they referred to as a ghost employee who drew a salary but never showed up for work.
“I think the fingerprints of the Saudi role are much deeper than has been disclosed,” Graham concluded, “and that a large reason for the failure to disclose that is the Bush administration went to extreme lengths to cover up Saudi involvement.”
During our visit to Shreveport, Hicks and I visited the FBI office there. The agent with whom we spoke deflected Hicks’ questions: “Are you saying that he knew all about 9/11 before it happened? I mean, I haven’t read all of his book.” Then Hicks asked if Mohammad Jamal Khan, a Pakistani man who reportedly introduced Dr. Graham to the two future hijackers, was an FBI informant. The agent hastily announced, “We’re done. Call security.”
In a remarkable twist of fate, some of the retired FBI agents who worked the case are now backing the family members’ campaign for disclosure. One of them, Daniel Gonzalez, signed on as a consultant to the families’ legal team after retiring from the agency in 2016.
“During the last 15 years of his FBI career, Gonzalez was a central figure in the bureau’s efforts to understand Saudi connections to 9/11,” the Times reports. “But even on the inside, Gonzalez often felt as if his own government wanted no part of what he was finding.”