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Trump Administration May Have Inflated Details Of Saudi Arms Deal


Ever since his trip to the Middle East last month, President Trump has been touting the deals he signed between the Saudis and American companies. The administration says they are worth hundreds of billions of dollars. NPR's Tamara Keith has been asking for more details from the administration, and it appears few of the deals are as done as the president and his team make it seem. She's with us on the line now. Hey there, Tam.


MCEVERS: So let's talk about President Trump in Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia, on May 20.

KEITH: Yeah, so President Trump and the Saudi king, Salman, sat side by side in the royal court palace and watched as agreement after agreement was signed by Saudi officials and American CEOs. This signing ceremony lasted 22 minutes. And the White House has been talking about it ever since. In the Rose Garden last week as President Trump was announcing the U.S. would pull out of the Paris climate accord, he took a detour to praise the deal struck in Saudi Arabia.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I've just returned from a trip overseas where we concluded nearly $350 billion of military and economic development for the United States creating hundreds of thousands of jobs. It was a very, very successful trip. Believe me.


KEITH: The administration says that those deals are worth $380 billion. That's 110 billion in arms sales and 270 billion in commercial agreements. And I have been asking the White House for details on those deals since that day, since the 20th. But it wasn't until my story aired earlier today that documented the difficulty in getting the administration to provide those details that, all of a sudden, they came through with an accounting of those numbers. They finally sent over two spreadsheets tonight outlining the details.

MCEVERS: Oh, ok, spreadsheets. That's not exactly great radio, but try to tell us what you've learned from those.

KEITH: Yeah, so the commercial side of things, the deals add up to about $267 billion. But as a spokeswoman just told me, this is aspirational. These deals are mostly not done but rather non-binding memoranda of understanding. If you look at the press releases that some of the companies have released - and not all of them have - they include words like preliminary, proposed, potential.

There are a couple of numbers that popped out to me looking at these spreadsheets. One is, the Saudi Public Investment Fund said it would put $20 billion into a fund created by the firm Blackstone to invest in U.S. infrastructure. But in the spreadsheet, it lists the full value of the fund, which is $40 billion.

And then also there's one with SoftBank. It's listed as a hundred-billion-dollar investment. Well, SoftBank is a Japanese company, and they actually announced the Saudi investment last October.

MCEVERS: So what about the $110 billion in military equipment sales?

KEITH: Well, that's easier to track because the State Department has to sign off, and information about the sales has to be posted. About 25 billion of that has already been posted, and those were arms deals that were set in motion during the Obama administration. And then as for the other 85 billion, it's partially deals that were already announced, and the rest are subject to approval by the State Department. And then once that were to happen, then they could begin actually negotiating. So it could be a long time before we actually know whether these numbers check out or whether they're sort of the hyperbole that President Trump perfected during his time in the business world.

MCEVERS: NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith, thank you.

KEITH: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF ASH BLACK BUFFLO SONG, "BUHO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.