President Trump’s declaration Tuesday that he won’t hold Saudi rulers accountable for the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi distilled the president’s foreign policy approach to its transactional and personalized essence.
Nearly two years into his presidency, Trump is unswerving in his instinct to make everything — from trade to terrorism, from climate change to human rights — about what he sees as the bottom line.
“We may never know all of the facts surrounding the murder of Mr. Jamal Khashoggi. In any case, our relationship is with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia,” Trump said in an oddly brisk statement laying out that the U.S. business and security relationship with Saudi Arabia, and with its designated next leader, is paramount.
He cited arms sales with the kingdom, its role as a bulwark against Iran and the threat of higher oil prices as risks to the United States if his administration ruptured the relationship over the Khashoggi killing.
The statement was issued as Trump prepared to head to his golf resort in Florida for the Thanksgiving holiday and in the wake of the CIA’s conclusion that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman had ordered the Oct. 2 killing of Khashoggi, a Washington Post contributor and U.S. resident.
The nothing-to-see-here tone, the fractured syntax and falsehoods, and the abundance of exclamation points were pure Trump — and as far from the massaged, nuanced products of past White Houses as one could imagine.
“It’s ‘America First,’ ” Trump told reporters Tuesday before departing for Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach. “For me, it’s all about America First. We’re not going to give up hundreds of billions of dollars in orders and let Russia, China and everybody else have them.”
Trump said that Saudi Arabia had helped him keep oil prices down and that without those efforts, “oil prices would go through the roof.”
As with U.S. intelligence assessments that Russia interfered in the 2016 election to help Trump, he overrode his advisers and downplayed their findings in favor of his own priorities and interpretation of events.
“King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman vigorously deny any knowledge of the planning or execution of the murder of Mr. Khashoggi. Our intelligence agencies continue to assess all information, but it could very well be that the Crown Prince had knowledge of this tragic event — maybe he did and maybe he didn’t!” Trump wrote.
Trump’s clannish management style is also a factor in the Saudi decision. He has entrusted the relationship to his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who has built a close partnership with MBS, as the young Saudi heir is known. Kushner has argued within the administration that the crown prince is crucial to assisting White House policy against Iran and in providing backing for a U.S.-sponsored Mideast peace package expected soon.
Telling reporters later that there is no “definitive” proof, Trump washed his hands of the matter.
“I think that statement was pretty obvious, what I said,” Trump said, as reporters shouted questions above the din of the presidential helicopter blades. “I’m not going to destroy the world economy” or harm U.S. interests in the Middle East or elsewhere over this case, he said.
The Trump administration has applied sanctions on 17 Saudis allegedly involved in the killing inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, but Trump appeared to be effectively writing off the possibility of larger consequences. Those might have included sanctions or a rebuke against the royal family, cancellation of weapons sales, or a boycott.
Trump has also bucked convention and the advice of Cabinet and career government officials in pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal and the Paris climate accord and in deploying punitive tariffs against allies and foes alike.
The president always places himself at the center of events and decides what to do from that standpoint, said Ross Kennedy, an American history professor and presidential scholar at Illinois State University. In the case of Saudi Arabia, the kingdom’s lavish welcome in Riyadh for Trump in 2017 set the tone, Kennedy said.
“He really personalizes his interactions, not just with people in domestic audiences or in business or with people he meets” at the White House, Kennedy said. “He does it with foreign leaders, and he bases much of what he does by how they treat him personally. The Saudis really laid it on thick.”
Past administrations, both Republican and Democratic, have prized a strategic partnership with Saudi Arabia and sometimes tempered criticism of human rights abuses, including religious persecution and the jailing of dissidents.
But President George W. Bush also argued that U.S. national security interests were served by defending human rights abroad, and his administration claimed to raise particular cases each time U.S. officials met with leaders of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Russia and other countries with poor human rights records.
On Iran, Riyadh has leveraged Trump’s opposition to the nuclear deal reached under President Barack Obama, appealing to Trump’s impulse to reverse his predecessor’s policies and giving Trump additional diplomatic footing to pull out of the agreement, Kennedy said. Trump’s statement Tuesday begins with an indictment of Iranian activities in the Middle East.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif responded by mocking Trump on his English-language Twitter feed, including a reference to the U.S. president’s false claim that Finland spends “a lot of time raking” its forests to prevent wildfires.
“Mr. Trump bizarrely devotes the FIRST paragraph of his shameful statement on Saudi atrocities to accuse IRAN of every sort of malfeasance he can think of,” Zarif wrote. “Perhaps we’re also responsible for the California fires, because we didn’t help rake the forests — just like the Finns do?”
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo did not attempt to wrap the Saudi decision in diplomatic niceties.
“So, it’s a mean, nasty world out there, the Middle East in particular,” Pompeo said when asked whether the Trump administration is excusing murder. “The United States will continue to have a relationship with the kingdom of Saudi Arabia. They are an important partner of ours. We will do that with the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, its people. That is the commitment that the president made today. It’s that straightforward.”
Samantha Power, who was Obama’s ambassador to the United Nations, called the president’s statement an “abomination that will define the ignorance, corruption, cruelty and recklessness of this presidency for generations to come.”
And Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), who has become a reliable Trump ally, took the president to task for letting the Saudis off easy.
“One thing I learned during the Obama years is that when you look the other way regarding problems in the Middle East, it seldom works out,” said Graham, who added that there is “strong bipartisan support” for serious sanctions against Saudi Arabia and members of the royal family.
Trump, fresh off the traditional pardoning of Thanksgiving turkeys at the White House, did not sound bothered about such criticism when he was asked who should be Time’s annual “Person of the Year.”
“That’s up to Time Magazine,” he said, noting that he had “been there before.” Trump was named “Person of the Year” in 2016 but was runner-up last year.
“I can’t imagine anybody else other than Trump,” he added, referring to himself in the third person. “Can you imagine anybody other than Trump?”