ILYA MARRITZ: Hello, and welcome to a Trump, Inc. podcast extra. Trump, Inc., of course, is an open investigation from WNYC and ProPublica that digs deep into the business side of the Trump presidency. I’m Ilya Marritz.
For the past year, we've been researching the Trump inauguration, the record amount of money it raised and how it was spent. That reporting led us to look closely at the man Donald Trump picked to run the event: Tom Barrack, a wealthy businessman who's been friends with Donald Trump for decades, and a big supporter.
TOM BARRACK: He’s the Uber of the presidents, right? He's the WeWork of the presidency. He's the Amazon of the presidency.
MARRITZ: Our most recent episode is all about Tom Barrack, so please go check it out. As we were getting that episode ready, House Democrats released a report that talked about another side of Tom Barrack's career — his role in a plan to persuade officials inside the Trump administration to export nuclear reactor technology to Saudi Arabia.
The 24-page document from the House Oversight Committee details how their proposal gained momentum during Trump's first days in office with the help of then-national security advisor, Michael Flynn, and the efforts continued, despite warnings from ethics officials and staff at the National Security Council.
The House investigation confirmed some of the reporting by one of our ProPublica colleagues, Isaac Arnsdorf, all the way back in 2017. Our editor Charlie Herman spoke with Isaac. He asked him first about IP3, the private company pushing the nuclear plan. Here's Charlie.
CHARLIE HERMAN: Tell me a little bit more about IP3.
ISAAC ARNSDORF: IP3 is a group of retired generals and former American national security officials who put together this proposal that U.S. companies should help Saudi Arabia build nuclear power plants. And they started lobbying the Trump transition and then the administration to move forward with this idea and found some key people close to the President who, uh, became champions for it.
HERMAN: Well, what exactly did they do to try and move this forward?
ARNSDORF: So, for one thing, General Flynn — during the campaign — was involved in this project. He was an advisor to one version of it. Um, so he was on board when he — before he was in the government, and then continued that support once he was in the White House. And the other ally that they made was Tom Barrack, the chairman of Trump's inaugural committee and a longtime friend, um, who was encouraging Trump to make a bold economic initiative to the Middle East. And this nuclear thing came along and he thought that that was just the thing.
HERMAN: So do any of these people involved in this have any expertise in building nuclear power reactors?
ARNSDORF: So, these are people like General Jack Keane and Bud McFarlane, who some listeners will remember from a previous, uh, presidential scandal. So they have a certain kind of expertise — a certain kind of experience, but, you know, this isn't a company that has any assets, that has any kind of track record, uh, that has any industrial capability. And so the idea was that they were going to kind of put that all together once they got the politics sorted out.
HERMAN: And — and what were the politics? I mean, some of the details about how they were actually trying to maneuver this within a new administration?
ARNSDORF: So nuclear power technology is obviously very strictly regulated, because it can be misused to produce nuclear weapons. And so, uh, they were looking to get the support of the new administration for that, which would then eventually lead to kind of greasing the wheels for that regulatory process.
HERMAN: And — and were they looking to go to Congress or just, you know, charge ahead?
ARNSDORF: So if the administration and Saudi Arabia — or any country, for that matter — were to reach one of these agreements on sharing nuclear power technology, uh, the way the law is written, that doesn't need to be ratified like a normal treaty. Um, but Congress does have a 90-day window where they could block it by passing a joint resolution.
HERMAN: Now, the company that they were saying could actually build this reactor is Westinghouse. Where do things stand with that company?
ARNSDORF: So Westinghouse is the only manufacturer of large-scale nuclear reactors. So if you have a plan to have U.S. companies build nuclear power plants in Saudi Arabia, you would need to have Westinghouse on board. It's not really clear that they ever really did have Westinghouse on board, and Westinghouse was having some financial difficulties — they actually filed for bankruptcy protection in March 2017. In one of the documents the House Oversight Committee released referenced a plan for IP3 and Saudi Arabia to acquire Westinghouse.
And one of the things that Tom Barrack mentioned to me when I spoke with him in 2017 was investing in Westinghouse was something that interested him as well. So there did seem to be this moment of — of opportunity where people were looking at how they could bring Westinghouse into this plan. Subsequently, my understanding is what happened is Westinghouse is sort of pursuing — trying to build reactors in Saudi Arabia on its own without IP3 as part of that.
HERMAN: So when you have people like Michael Flynn and Tom Barrack, who are pushing ahead on a possible transfer of nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia, it's not that they know about nuclear technology. They see this as a business opportunity and they know politics and they think they can just sort of push this through.
ARNSDORF: Well, there — there’s a very serious policy question, that’s — that’s a really hard question that a lot of security experts and non-proliferation experts struggle with, which is: Saudi Arabia has made clear they want to have nuclear power. If they don't get it from the U.S., they could turn around and get it from Russia or China.
And then, not only will the U.S. not have the economic benefit, but the Russians and the Chinese won't make the same kinds of security assurances to prevent that technology from being militarized. But the thing is that the Trump administration's approach to that policy question was led by these people who weren't only thinking about it in those terms, because they also had potentially personal financial interests at stake.
So for Flynn, it was his prior involvement in the project. And for Barrack, it was, uh, this possibility of investing in Westinghouse or doing other things with his investment company, where he was looking to, uh, make money off the new administration's policies because of his access to the administration. And we — and we know that from a confidential memo that some of our colleagues obtained.
HERMAN: So Barrack is the man who chaired Trump's inauguration. He is the founder and CEO of a private equity firm. I mean, how else was the administration envisioning Barrack's role when it came to the Middle East?
ARNSDORF: So funny thing about this is that at the same time that Barrack was looking at these investment opportunities, he was also looking at being the guy to quarterback this policy, that there was some talk of him going into the administration and being, like, the czar in charge of this. So at the — at the same time that he was going to lead this policy, he was looking for ways to make money on this policy.
HERMAN: How have all the people involved in this reacted since this report came out?
ARNSDORF: The White House hasn't commented. Neither has Flynn's lawyer or IP3. Tom Barrack said that he'll cooperate with the congressional investigation.
HERMAN: Is the Trump administration continuing to move forward with the idea of transferring nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia?
ARNSDORF: It certainly looks that way. Just last week, there was a meeting in the Oval Office between President Trump and the Energy Secretary Rick Perry and executives in the nuclear industry that was actually organized by one of the key people from IP3.
HERMAN: So how does all of this fit into U.S. policies as they exist now towards Iran?
ARNSDORF: So, if you remember during the Obama administration, a major Republican critique of the Iran nuclear deal was why the Obama administration was dealing with Iran instead of its ally, Saudi Arabia. And, uh, that was something that was coming from the Saudis, to a large extent, that they made pretty clear that they didn't want to fall behind their chief regional rival.
And, uh, more recently, last year, the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman actually came out and said this in an interview with 60 Minutes, that if Iran were to get a nuclear weapon, then Saudi Arabia would surely want to have one too.
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MARRITZ: Isaac Arnsdorf is a reporter with ProPublica. Charlie Herman is one of the editors of this podcast.
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MARRITZ: Trump, Inc. is an open investigation, and that means we count on you for tips. You can send them to us at tips@TrumpIncPodcast.org, or find out how to send secure documents on our website,TrumpIncPodcast.org. Trump, Inc. is produced by Meg Cramer and Katherine Sullivan.
We had additional help this episode from Kristin Schwab. James Coyle is the engineer. Phil Moss is our technical director. The editors are Charlie Herman and Eric Umansky. Jim Schachter is the Vice President for News at WNYC, and Steve Engelberg is the Editor-in-Chief of ProPublica.