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Opinion How Trump enabled the abuses of Saudi Arabia’s crown prince

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (Francois Mori/AP)

TWO YEARS ago it would have been inconceivable that the rulers of Saudi Arabia, a close U.S. ally, would be suspected of abducting or killing a critic who lived in Washington and regularly wrote for The Post — or that they would dare to stage such an operation in Turkey, another U.S. ally and a NATO member. That the regime now stands accused by Turkish government sources of murdering Jamal Khashoggi, one of the foremost Saudi journalists, in the kingdom’s Istanbul consulate could be attributed in part to the rise of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the kingdom’s 33-year-old de facto ruler, who has proved as reckless as he is ambitious. But it also may reflect the influence of President Trump, who has encouraged the crown prince to believe — wrongly, we trust — that even his most lawless ventures will have the support of the United States.

The Obama administration distanced itself from the Saudi leadership because of its opposition to the nuclear deal with Iran, and because of the misbegotten Saudi intervention in Yemen, which has led to thousands of civilian deaths in indiscriminate bombing. But soon after taking office, Mr. Trump moved dramatically to restore relations. He made Riyadh — rather than Ottawa or Mexico City — the destination for his first foreign visit; there he quickly succumbed to the over-the-top displays of fealty and promises of huge arms purchases by his hosts.

Unlike previous presidents, Mr. Trump did not raise human rights issues with Saudi leaders, though the crown prince has imprisoned hundreds of liberal activists, including women who advocated the right to drive. When scores of businessmen and royal family members were detained in late 2017 in what amounted to a massive shakedown — most were released after turning over assets to the regime — Mr. Trump was approving. “I have great confidence in King Salman and the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia,” he tweeted. “They know exactly what they are doing.”

The Post's Karen DeYoung explained why the disappearance of journalist Jamal Khashoggi could change the U.S. and Saudi Arabia relationship. (Video: Joyce Lee/The Washington Post)

When the crown prince visited Washington in March last year, Mr. Trump received him at the White House and again made no mention of human rights. “The relationship is probably the strongest it’s ever been,” he said. “We understand each other.” The president bragged about hundreds of billions in arms purchases he said the Saudis had promised, saying, “Saudi Arabia is a very wealthy nation, and they’re going to give the United States some of that wealth.”

Some of those deals have yet to materialize, but the administration continues to support Saudi bombing in Yemen, reversing the Obama administration’s withdrawal of targeting and refueling support. After one airstrike killed dozens of children in August, Congress conditioned U.S. aid on a certification by the administration that the regime was taking steps to avoid civilian casualties. Despite evidence to the contrary, the certification was issued .

Could this record have encouraged the crown prince to believe that he could take drastic action to silence one of his most prominent critics without damaging his relations with Washington? If so, the administration’s response thus far would not have altered his conclusion. Not until Monday, six days after Mr. Khashoggi’s disappearance, did Mr. Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speak out; even then they offered no criticism, only expressions of concern and an appeal for investigation.

Some in Congress have had more to say: Republican senators such as Bob Corker (Tenn.), Marco Rubio (Fla.) and Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.) and Democrats including Tim Kaine (Va.), Dianne Feinstein (Calif.) and Chris Murphy (Conn.) have warned of the consequences of an attack on a journalist. Mr. Murphy tweeted that if the Turkish allegation of murder is true, “it should represent a fundamental break in our relationship with Saudi Arabia.” That is the right response.

Read more:

Anne Applebaum: Trump’s bizarre and un-American visit to Saudi Arabia

The Post’s View: Evidence of what happened to Jamal Khashoggi exists. It must be released.

Asli Aydintasbas: Jamal Khashoggi’s disappearance and the crumbling of the global order

Charles Lane: In Saudi Arabia, you can’t separate reform from repression