Donald Trump’s handling of journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s murder is an expression of his theory of foreign affairs in general—it’s a model of quickly established personal connections, not long-term relationships between nation states. Trump’s business relationship with the Saudi royal family goes back almost a decade, and all those apartment sales that made him “like them very much” get in the way of Trump taking appropriate action on a national level. The same effect can be seen in Trump’s slice of cake, game of golf “friendship” with Chinese president Xi, his exchange of love letters with Kim Jong Un, and most certainly in his “he says nice things about me” relationship with Vladimir Putin. Trump’s first, second, and last thought about anyone is how they relate to him, not how the goals of the nation they lead may be in conflict with what’s good for the United States.
But the murder of Khashoggi, and the way Trump has attempted to handle it by insisting that the U.S. can do nothing to upset the Saudi royals and that the Saudis should be given all the time they want to investigate a crime where they’re the primary (and, in fact, only) suspects, is rankling even to Republicans in Congress. Republicans have made their party all about Trump and nationalized the midterms to a greater degree than any election in history. But that Trump connection isn’t looking particularly helpful as they ride into the teeth of bad poll numbers with Trump openly defending a grisly murder.
It also doesn’t soothe Republicans that in his effort to put a lid on any intelligence leaks concerning what happened at the Saudi consulate, Trump has shut down briefings on the subject. That’s even true for Republicans senators, who found a scheduled Tuesday briefing unscheduled at the last minute. As Bloomberg reports, Trump’s beyond kid glove treatment of Saudi murderers is opening rifts even with those who had reconciled themselves to a party that was all Trump, all the time. Trump may be shocked, but there are some in Congress who don’t like a crown prince who rose to power by murdering or imprisoning his relatives, or think much of the nation that’s dropping U.S. bombs willy nilly on civilian targets.
“There are a number of constituencies in Congress that are hostile to Saudi Arabia,” said Jon Alterman, a senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. U.S. lawmakers have complained about the kingdom’s egregious human rights record, its suppression of religious freedom and civilian deaths in the Yemen war.
Until now, there hasn’t been enough energy within this bipartisan group to bring out Republicans willing to stand up to Trump on his support for Mohammed bin Salman, or to challenge the fiction of the “largest arms deal ever.” But that may be changing.
There’s always been a vocal minority in Congress that remembers the connection between the Kingdom and the origin of the 9/11 terrorists. In 2016, Congress passed a law to allow the Saudi Arabian government to be sued by plaintiffs in 9/11 lawsuits. And though Mohammed bin Salman gained considerable US media for moves like allowing Saudi women to drive—a change that was underway before he took power—and reopening movie theaters, the longer he remains in power the more brutal, clumsy, and erratic his rule has seemed.
Bin Salman held a number of his relatives, including billionaire Alwaleed bin Talal, hostage for months until they pledged their fealty to him. He even held the Prime Minister of Lebanon hostage for weeks in an effort to force him to resign and put a bin Salman-approved leader in charge. Bin Salman led the charge on both the blockade of the tiny kingdom of Qatar—whose major crime was hosting journalists critical of the Saudi royals—and expanded the incursion into Yemen, which the UN now considers the highest level of humanitarian crisis. Saudi jets even intentionally bombed an airport to prevent doctors from the International Red Crescent from landing in Yemen to assist the wounded.
Despite favorable press from U.S.-based magazines and glowing appearances on U.S. television that painted bin Salman as a “progressive reformist,” his rule has been strict and brutal. In 2017, Saudi authorities beheaded a record number of “criminals.” The year 2018 is on pace to break that record.
Bin Salman is not a well-traveled, well-educated Saudi leader for a new generation. His skill consists of being even more brutal than the old generation, so much so that he conducted an internal coup, upsetting the nation’s own line of succession and concentrating power to an unprecedented degree. Donald Trump and Jared Kushner have been direct contributors to bin Salman’s rise, with Kushner meeting with him at least five times, including make a trip to Riyadh in which Kushner is strongly suspected of providing bin Salman with the names of opponents who were later imprisoned, exiled, or executed.
Trump has been willing to accept a denial from bin Salman about his role in the Khashoggi murder. He’s even put forward the ludicrous idea that “rogue killers” might have killed Khashoggi within the walls of the consulate building. That idea, as Trump has admitted, came straight from Saudi King Salman. Trump isn’t just sitting on his hands. He’s working as an active mouthpiece for the Saudi government to spread their lies about the murder along with lies about their importance to the United States.
But if Turkish authorities can be trusted (also an open question) a great deal of evidence is piling up that puts bin Salman squarely in the driver’s seat of the consulate killing. The fact that intelligence briefings have been suspended has also made congressmen wonder if it’s not because the information those briefings might provide would be damning.
Not all Republicans who are angry about what’s happening are angry enough to speak up. After all, two weeks before an election isn’t the best time to split with the guy who is the sole focus of Republican energy. They’re angry … just not yet angry enough to make more than an anonymous complaint to the media.
As usual, the willingness to speak up seems directly connected to the desire to hang onto their current seat. But a few names that have recently been among Trump’s best buds—Rand Paul and Lindsey Graham—are making noises. Small noises. But noises. If Trump continues to protect the Saudis over the next week, those voices could get a lot louder.
Only … all the evidence from Russia to Kavanaugh shows that Republicans will never hold Trump responsible for his disasters. So don’t count on them.