President Trump didn’t want to acknowledge that Russia intervened in our election. The American people have yet to get a satisfactory explanation for his subservience to an international foe. Perhaps the Russians have incriminating information on him, or perhaps he’s financially indebted to Russians. He might simply be afraid to admit he didn’t win on his own. In any event, Trump has spent a couple of years denying incontrovertible evidence of Russian wrongdoing, going so far as to take Russian President Vladimir Putin’s side publicly over the unanimous views of our intelligence community. Denial leads to irrational rhetoric, concern about his loyalties and embarrassment for our country.
The Washington Post first reported Friday that the CIA had assessed with high confidence the Saudi leader’s role [in the killing of Post Global Opinions columnist Jamal Khashoggi], based on multiple sources of intelligence.
But the president had already been shown evidence of the prince’s alleged involvement in the killing, and privately he remains skeptical, Trump aides said. He has also looked for ways to avoid pinning the blame on Mohammed, the aides said. …
“This is a situation where everyone basically knows what happened,” said one adviser who talks to Trump often. This person said Trump has repeatedly criticized how Mohammed has handled the situation and has said it is clear they are hiding facts.
CIA Director Gina Haspel and national security adviser John Bolton briefed Trump, even “offering pieces of evidence that show lieutenants of Mohammed were directly involved in the killing, according to people familiar with the matter.”
Trump, like a child putting his fingers in his ears and babbling to avoid disagreeable reality, refuses to listen to the audiotape, what he calls “a suffering tape.” Perhaps it makes the lie that Mohammed was not involved harder to sustain, or perhaps it’s evidence of Trump’s personal cowardice and squeamishness. Whatever the reason, it’s further proof that no matter what evidence is available, Trump will insist on creating doubt about Mohammed’s culpability (quibbling about whether there is evidence of an “order”).
If the “400-pound guy” — a figment of Trump’s imagination — could be invoked to create doubts about Russian interference in our elections, don’t expect a mere audio recording to end debate about the alleged grisly murder and dismemberment of Khashoggi. The White House would do well to listen to Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), who on CNN on Sunday admonished the administration not “to just deflect and say it’s a spectacular ally, when, in fact, some of the bloom has been coming off that rose for a while.” He offered the novel idea that our policy should be “based on the truth, not in something that we simply want to see because we have a lot invested in the relationship with the crown prince now.”
Despite the CIA’s “high confidence” that Mohammed was behind the plot (and common sense, which would tell us that a despotic leader aware of much less significant actions would necessarily be aware of something of this magnitude), Trump would rather elevate the importance of and protect a murderous regime, create more concern about his loyalties (Does he have a financial stake at risk? Is he simply an easy mark for flattery?) and increase embarrassment for the United States. In this case, Trump gives the green light to every strongman around the globe who would imprison, harass or murder journalists.
“The Saudis have already undermined their position in the world, undermined their standing. And the administration makes sure — needs to make sure it doesn’t undermine its own standing,” warned Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.), the incoming chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, on ABC’s “This Week” on Sunday.
Trump and a good many conservative foreign policy advisers and outside experts were frankly snookered by the Saudis, who fed their hunger for an anti-Iran ally that spared us the trouble of deeper engagement in the region. Now they are straining to avoid the collapse of an ill-conceived strategy. Veteran diplomat Aaron David Miller tweeted:
Trump is looking for a way out of the Khashoggi crisis that doubles down on his investment in MBS. Tuesday’s report may make that clear. But nothing will fix the problem of the pariah prince or the fact that he’s getting bamboozled by Saudis and everyone knows it.
When it comes to Russia and Saudi Arabia, Congress must play the role of foreign policy grown-up and keep American foreign policy grounded in reality. With near-unanimous votes in Congress, Trump was obliged to sign on to additional sanctions against Russia in 2017. Likewise, Congress has it within its power to cut off arms sales and to enact sanctions that include Mohammed. It can also end support for the Yemen War and the Saudis’ killing and starvation of thousands of innocents. As Schiff advised, “first and foremost, we need to bring an end to the conflict in Yemen, but also we need to stop placing so much reliance on Saudi Arabia and in particular on the person of the crown prince.”
With a Democratic-majority House, Congress also will have the power and the will to explore Trump and Jared Kushner’s financial ties to foreign powers, which could be at the root of Trump’s insistence of sheltering autocrats from responsibility for their unacceptable actions. The House can subpoena Trump’s tax and business records, put Trump employees under oath, obtain outside bank records and call other witnesses who might have knowledge of foreign business connections.
Trump very likely is in violation of the emoluments clause (by virtue of the Saudis’ lavish spending at his properties). In plain language, Congress must determine whether foreign corruption, if not outright bribery, is affecting our foreign policy decision-making and hence our national security, or whether our excessively deferential policy toward the Saudis stems from Trump’s refusal to reshape a flawed foreign policy.
Ironically, the result of Trump’s indulgence of belligerent governments (including North Korea, with whom Trump wants another photo-op summit) is to embolden foes and to make us look as though we’re dependent on lesser powers (e.g., Saudi Arabia, Egypt). If only Trump actually had a foreign policy that put American interests — and values — first, we might reclaim the respect of allies and foes alike. Sadly, we likely will need a new president before we start winning again.