This post has been updated.
There may be legitimate reasons for the United States not to throw the book at Saudi Arabia for its killing of Jamal Khashoggi. The problem is that President Trump hasn’t provided any logically sound ones.
Trump released a highly unusual statement Tuesday giving the Saudi royals a pass for Khashoggi’s death, and then he and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo defended it. But just about everything Trump said was either wrong or overly simplistic.
Trump couched the whole thing in terms of “America First” — the idea that he needs to look out for the interests of the United States more than anything. This was a callback to his original comments about Khashoggi, which repeatedly and conspicuously invoked the fact that he was not an American citizen. Pompeo hit this theme Tuesday as well, repeatedly using the word “American” while defending Trump’s statement — five times in 19 words, in fact.
But Khashoggi was a legal resident of the United States, and he was working for an American newspaper — The Washington Post — as a contributing columnist. This was, to an extent, an attack on American sovereignty. And implicit in Trump’s justifications for not holding the Saudi royals accountable is the idea that it’s simply not worth the sacrifice — that Saudi Arabia has too much leverage through its arms deals and control of the world oil supply. Trump used fanciful statistics about the amount of money Saudi Arabia has injected in the American economy, the number of jobs it would create, and suggested oil would go to $150 per barrel if the Saudis were punished.
In addition to these statistics being wrong, they ignore a crucial fact: There are consequences to a lack of accountability, too. The Saudis may be emboldened to take advantage of the United States in other ways, given the lack of so much as a slap on the wrist. Other countries may do the same. As some hawkish Republicans tried to make the case to Trump, the risk here is that the United States looks weak. And Trump is tacitly confirming that it’s not strong enough to punish Saudi Arabia. He’s saying Saudi Arabia is just too powerful and potent for him to want to jeopardize anything.
So much for the idea that Trump would exert his will on the world stage and make other countries respect us again.
The second major problem is those bogus numbers. There are undoubtedly good reasons to want to salvage this relationship, so why does Trump feel the need to exaggerate the size of almost all of them? The $450 billion. The hundreds of thousands of jobs. The price of oil ($150 a barrel has only been crested once, and we’re currently at about one-third of that). The idea that punishing Saudi Arabia would “destroy the world economy.” There may be pain, but this is way over the top.
Trump’s contentions about the Syrian civil war and Iran’s involvement in Yemen are also contrary to the consensus of experts.
The third problem is Trump’s method. In defending his decision, he decided to allude to bogus claims that Khashoggi was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, while adding “but my decision is in no way based on that.” Okay, so why mention it? This was essentially Trump passing along smears of a slain journalist on behalf of Saudi Arabia, while also giving it a pass on the whole thing. It’s difficult to think how he could have made this even more painful for Khashoggi’s family, but he found a way.
The last point here is that Trump is questioning and preempting his own intelligence community. The CIA is set to report that it has high confidence that Mohammed was behind Khashoggi’s killing, yet Trump repeatedly questioned that. “Maybe he did and maybe he didn’t!” Trump said in his statement. He added that “we may never know all of the facts surrounding the murder of Mr. Jamal Khashoggi.”
We don’t know exactly what the CIA report will say, but it’s difficult to imagine a more frustrating comment if you’re an intelligence officer — the idea that your work will never be good and conclusive enough for the president to take serious action. It all harks back to what happened with the Russia investigation.
Trump is essentially allowing Saudi Arabia to kill a journalist for an American newspaper because of his clearly outsized sense of its importance, ignoring the impact that might have on the United States’ standing in the world and shunning the conclusions of his own government.
There are no easy answers here, but Trump seems to be erring to one extreme rather than taking a pragmatic approach that truly protects American sovereignty.