“Trump Stands Up for Saudi Arabian Values”

NYT editorial, Nov 20, 2018

President Trump confirmed the harshest caricatures drawn by America’s most cynical critics on Tuesday when he portrayed its central objectives in the world as panting after money and narrow self-interest.

Ignoring the findings of the C.I.A., Mr. Trump said in a muddled statement released by the White House that, in effect, no matter how wrong the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi, no matter where true responsibility lay, he would not stand up to the Saudi regime. He would not take any chance of risking its supplies of money, oil and help in the Middle East by holding the crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, accountable for the killing.

The president made clear his commitment to the use of the exclamation point, if not to truth and justice: “It could very well be that the Crown Prince had knowledge of this tragic event — maybe he did and maybe he didn’t!”

Mr. Khashoggi, a resident of Virginia though not an American citizen, was a columnist for an American newspaper, The Washington Post. It did not serve the safety of journalists or Americans abroad that President Trump could not summon even a modicum of lip service to condemn the abomination of dispatching a hit team equipped with a bone saw to throttle and dismember Mr. Khashoggi for daring to criticize the crown prince. The crown prince, who is 33, is an ally and kindred spirit to Mr. Trump and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner.

At the outset of his statement, Mr. Trump declared, “The world is a very dangerous place!” Indeed. He is making it more so by emboldening despots in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere. The killing, revealed in all its inhuman detail by a Turkish audio recording and followed by a stream of lies revising previous lies from the Saudi regime, seemed to reflect arrogance of a rising breed of autocratic rulers impervious to shame or moral judgment. Mr. Trump is confirming them in their impunity.

In simplistic and often inaccurate terms, the statement reflected Mr. Trump’s view that all relationships are transactional, and that moral or human rights considerations must be sacrificed to a primitive understanding of American national interests — or as he put it, “America first!” “We may never know all of the facts surrounding the murder of Mr. Jamal Khashoggi,” the president declared. “In any case, our relationship is with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.”

Mr. Trump’s first reference to Mr. Khashoggi came only after a long riff about Iran, which Mr. Trump depicted, remarkably, as solely responsible for the war in Yemen. With disregard for the abundant evidence that Saudi Arabia has waged an indiscriminate air campaign that is responsible for a humanitarian disaster, he claimed that the Saudis would “gladly” withdraw if Iran did, and would provide humanitarian assistance. That was followed by a passage on the tens of billions of dollars in arms sales and investment Mr. Trump claims he has extracted from Saudi Arabia — claims that are vastly overblown.

When Mr. Trump did briefly note Mr. Khashoggi’s murder — “a terrible one” — the president repeated Saudi slanders that the journalist was an “enemy of the state” and an Islamist, disingenuously adding that this did not affect his thinking. It’s not the first time Mr. Trump has suggested that this is not someone for whom America should jeopardize its interests.

In the absence of leadership from the president, it falls to Congress to take action and protect America’s standing in the world. Mr. Trump knows he is on a collision course with the legislature: His statement concludes with a challenge to members of Congress who “for political or other reasons, would like to go in a different direction” to go ahead and try.

Mr. Trump was referring to a swelling bipartisan demand to use the leverage of arms sales to punish Saudi Arabia. His words are above all a gauntlet cast to Senator Lindsey Graham, the South Carolina Republican who has vacillated between principled opposition and craven support for President Trump.

A few hours after the White House released the president’s statement, Mr. Graham issued a rebuke. I firmly believe there will be strong bipartisan support for serious sanctions against Saudi Arabia, including appropriate members of the royal family, for this barbaric act which defied all civilized norms,” he said. “While Saudi Arabia is a strategic ally, the behavior of the crown prince — in multiple ways — has shown disrespect for the relationship and made him, in my view, beyond toxic.”

The murder of Jamal Khashoggi and the causes of human rights, justice and truth demand that no one in Saudi Arabia, certainly not the crown prince, escape accountability.

Your move, Senator Graham.