Opinion writer

After 17 days during which the Saudi government refused to acknowledge responsibility for the gruesome murder of Jamal Khashoggi, it released a ludicrous account claiming the former contributing columnist for The Post and critic of the regime, died in a fistfight with 18 Saudi officials. As evidence mounted over more than two weeks that he was slaughtered and dismembered by a 15-person hit squad (with bone saw in hand) flown in and out of Turkey, the regime lied to President Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, over and over again. Mohammed bin Salman is now going to oversee further investigation — for a month.

Rarely have we seen such a patently stupid coverup for a crime of this magnitude. “After 2+ [weeks] of dissembling, the Saudi ‘explanation’ is not remotely credible,” Suzanne Maloney of the Brookings Institution tweeted. “Nor is the MBS myth, at least not anymore.” She continued: “The end result of this horrific saga is a weaker, more isolated Saudi Arabia [and] a less effective US-Saudi partnership. And no justice for the innocent victim.”

The administration appears willing to go along with this farce. Unbelievably, President Trump called this nonsensical explanation and stalling a “great first step” and immediately took off the table the best leverage we have, arms sales. He stressed he wanted to talk to MBS before further action, essentially offering to consult with the person many experts say must have been at least aware of the plot to snatch and kill Khashoggi. White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders’s bland acknowledgment of Khashoggi’s death and announcement that the White House would continue to “follow” international investigations (that would be the Saudi’s self-investigation?) reminds one of Hannah Arendt’s phrase “the banality of evil.” Meanwhile, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin insists on going to an anti-terror finance meeting in Riyadh, having just canceled on a separate “Davos in the Desert” confab that he and business leaders withdrew from in the aftermath of Kashoggi’s disappearance.

There was no actual condemnation by the administration of this human rights atrocity, no defense of a free press or of the right of Americans (residents or citizens) to travel safely. The administration looks feckless, and if it continues down this road, will earn the ridicule and disdain of Americans, our allies and all free peoples.

In allowing the Saudis to delay this long and failing to demand audio recordings allegedly capturing the murder, the administration has become an accessory after the fact, an enabler of nearly unimaginable evil.

What’s more, Trump looks pathetically weak. His childlike willingness to adopt a transparent lie so as to avoid taking action will certainly entice other despots to engage in similar acts of brutality. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), one of many 2020 possible presidential candidates, issued a blistering statement: “This is the most corrupt administration in living history. Do we need a strong response on Saudi Arabia? Absolutely. And Donald Trump is showing he is not capable.”

If there is a ray of hope here, it is Congress, even one presently controlled by Republicans. The Post reports:

International outrage over the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, a journalist and Washington Post contributor, has galvanized lawmakers and critics who are seeking to curb arms sales to Saudi Arabia.

The kingdom is the largest importer of U.S.-made weapons and for years has come under fire from human rights group for jailing dissidents and journalists and killing civilians in a military campaign in Yemen.

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who has repeatedly urged his colleagues to end sales to Saudi Arabia, said he will fight the next Saudi arms deal that comes before Congress.

Moreover, if Democrats win control of at least one chamber, they will have the power of oversight. In that case, they must demand every scrap of evidence the administration had concerning the murder. What did it know, and why, as it appears, did it feign ignorance of the crime?

Pompeo, intelligence chiefs and others with knowledge of the facts must be questioned under oath. At the same time, Congress must have robust hearings enlisting human rights and national security experts concerning the Saudis’ human rights abuses and the regime’s influence-buying in the United States. (Every think tank, university and nongovernmental organization that accepts Saudi or Gulf-state money should be required to disclose its funding.)

Finally, in addition to suspending our arms deals (which do not amount to $110 billion as Trump claims), Congress should insist on application of Magnitsky Act sanctions against all involved in this despicable crime. That should include MBS, if as knowledgeable intelligence experts say, he was fully aware of the plot and involved in the coverup.

If Trump and the Republicans want to defend the Saudis, they can try. It will prove to be politically disastrous. Maybe instead of defending the indefensible and appearing utterly foolish, the president and his minions should start a review and reassessment of their already incoherent Middle East policy.