Tom Barrack, a key donor and friend of President Donald Trump attempted to justify the killing of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi Tuesday, arguing that the US does not have the moral authority to criticize Saudi Arabia due to its own record of “atrocities.”
When asked whether Khashoggi’s murder has damaged Saudi Arabia’s reputation on the world stage, Barrack began his answer with a joke before attributing public outrage over the killing in the US to a Western misunderstanding of the Saudi rule of law.
“As long as you don’t make me a guest at the Ritz,” Barrack quipped, before moving into his response to a question from CNN’s Becky Anderson at the Milken Institute MENA Summit in Abu Dhabi.
“I believe that the problem with what’s happened with the Khashoggi incident is the same problems of the West misunderstanding the East that’s existed since Sykes–Picot. So the West is confused that the rule of law – doesn’t understand what the rule of law is in the Kingdom,” he added.
Barrack did not elaborate on what he meant about being “a guest at the Ritz,” but the comment appeared to be a reference to the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Riyadh that was converted into a lavish prison for high-profile Saudis during the kingdom’s anti-corruption sweep in late 2017.
While Barrack did not mention Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman by name, he praised the economic vision of the Kingdom’s “young brilliant new leader” before attempting to justify the killing of Khashoggi.
“Whatever happened in Saudi Arabia, the atrocities in America are equal or worse than the atrocities in Saudi Arabia. The atrocities in any autocratic country are dictated by the rule of law,” he said.
“So for us to dictate what we think is the moral code there when we have a young man in a regime that’s trying to push themselves into 2030, I think is a mistake,” Barrack added.
Oklahoma Republican Sen. James Lankford told CNN’s John Berman Wednesday that Barrack’s comments were unacceptable.
“There is never a time that you can go murder a journalist in a foreign country, dismember them and carry their body off and say that somehow that’s justifiable,” Lankford said.
“It never, ever is justifiable and it doesn’t equate to anything that’s happened in the United States where we stand up for the free press,” he added.
Barrack released a statement on Wednesday saying he apologized “for not making it clear at the time that I consider the killing reprehensible.”
“I feel strongly that the bad acts of a few should not be interpreted as the failure of an entire sovereign kingdom. Having spent over 40 years in the region I can attest that the rule of law and monarchies across the Middle East are confusing to the West and support for change and rule of law is essential as the agony and mistakes of great change take place,” he added.
“I love America and am myself a product of American freedom, American leadership and the American dream. I have always believed and continue to believe that the United States is the greatest country in the world but our history and our policies in the Middle East have been confusing at times. I believe that as a nation we do constantly work to lead by example, and I believe that we still do,” Barrack stated.
Barrack, the executive chairman at real estate investment trust Colony NorthStar, is a business associate of Trump who has helped raise funds in support of Trump’s political ambitions and has publicly defended the President.
At the 2016 Republican National Convention, he said that Trump is one of his “closest friends,” and described him as “good enough, tough enough, smart enough and well-versed enough” to win the presidency.
Last summer, The New York Times reported that Barrack has maintained an extensive network of contacts in the Persian Gulf for years and introduced several associates from the region to Trump prior him becoming the Republican nominee for President.
Citing an executive familiar with the figures, The Times also reported that Barrack’s company raised more than $7 billion in investments since Trump won the Republican nomination and 24% of that money has come from either the United Arab Emirates or Saudi Arabia. The report notes that Barrack’s company has not disclosed the names of its investors.
In October, Barrack was among the wave of top executives and US officials who withdrew from the Future Investment Initiative summit in Saudi Arabia amid growing controversy over Khashoggi’s killing.
Since that time, the CIA has assessed with high confidence that the prince directed Khashoggi’s murder, which was conducted by members of bin Salman’s inner circle.
However, the administration has taken the stand that there is no smoking gun linking bin Salman to the murder, pinning its defense in part on the way intelligence works and the nature of this case. Agencies assign a confidence level to their findings, which are presented to political leaders, but don’t offer conclusions.
Barrack also served as chairman of Trump’s inaugural committee which was subpoenaed by federal prosecutors in New York this month.
The wide-ranging subpoena from the Manhattan US attorney’s office requires the committee to turn over documents related to virtually every donor or donation, attendee at a committee event, piece of paperwork related to the legal requirements attached to donations and even “the possibility of” donations made by foreign nationals.
Barrack was not named in the subpoena and was not asked about the probe on Tuesday.
Barrack’s comments about Khashoggi come as lawmakers are working on a bipartisan effort to exert more pressure on the White House after the administration failed to properly respond to a congressional deadline requiring the President to determine whether bin Salman is responsible for the murder and if sanctions will be levied as a result.
Sen. Bob Menendez, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told CNN Monday that he is working with South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham to “hold the administration’s feet to the fire” on Saudi Arabia over the murder of the Washington Post journalist.
Graham said he and Menendez are “going to take appropriate action” to put a bill on the President’s desk, and called the murder of Khashoggi “barbaric beyond acceptance.”
“We believe the Crown Prince – MBS – had a hand in this. It couldn’t have happened without his knowledge and approvals and we’re going to take appropriate action,” he added.
Last week, a senior administration official told CNN that “the President maintains his discretion to decline to act on congressional committee requests when appropriate.”
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also sent letters to Senate Foreign Relations Chairman James Risch, an Idaho Republican, and to Menendez, of New Jersey, that appeared to lay out administration talking points.
Risch told CNN Wednesday that he is satisfied with the Trump team’s response but that opinion is not shared by other key committee leaders on Capitol Hill.
“The response that I received was completely inadequate. It was about a half page and it was not in compliance with the law. I think it’s important that the, not only the American people and policy makers to know what happened, as we look at our policies toward Saudi Arabia but also the world in general,” Rep. Michael McCaul, the top Republican on House Foreign Affairs said Wednesday.
“I met the wife of the blogger who’s been in jail for quite some time. The Khashoggi incident was a gruesome killing and assassination. We have great hope for this crown prince moving forward, but his rhetoric needs to meet his actions,” he told CNN.
CNN’s Manu Raju, Nicole Gaouette, Erin Burnett, Erica Orden, Gloria Borger and Caroline Kelly contributed reporting