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(Bandar Algaloud)

As the evidence mounts that Saudi officials ordered the abduction and possible murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the Trump administration seems bent on protecting them.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo conducted a lightning tour of the Middle East this week, flying to the Saudi and Turkish capitals. He echoed Saudi denials of culpability and backed Riyadh’s ongoing investigation into the disappearance of Khashoggi, who has not been seen since entering the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2. In private, Turkish, U.S. and even Saudi-linked sources have all said they believe Khashoggi was killed there, though no government has publicly confirmed it.

The grisly details of what Saudi agents allegedly did to Khashoggi, a dissident-in-exile and contributing columnist to The Washington Post, get worse by the day. On Wednesday, the New York Times, citing a senior Turkish official, reported that Khashoggi was beaten and gruesomely tortured, his fingers cut off and his body eventually beheaded and dismembered.

Both The Washington Post and the Times confirmed the identities of at least some of the members of a Saudi team reportedly dispatched to Istanbul to apprehend Khashoggi. Some were members of Saudi security services, and at least one has been photographed in close proximity to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the kingdom’s de facto ruler and the man who potentially ordered the operation against Khashoggi.

The Saudi version of events — which has yet to officially come out — probably will own up to Khashoggi’s death but blame the lurid mess on “rogue” elements within the court. “The emerging Saudi narrative appears to be that the palace authorized Khashoggi’s arrest and interrogation but not his murder,” wrote The Post’s David Ignatius. He described the crown prince alternating “between dark brooding and rampaging anger” in the aftermath of Khashoggi’s death.

Trump has himself already voiced the suggestion of “rogue killers” disappearing Khashoggi. The president, his lieutenants in the White House and allies in right-wing media have continually stressed the importance of preserving Washington’s alliance with Riyadh, no matter the growing howls of outrage in Washington over the kingdom’s conduct.

Trump likened the surge in anger toward the Saudis to the furor around Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh, who was accused of sexual assault during his contentious confirmation process. “Here we go again with, you know, you’re guilty until proven innocent,” said Trump — a comparison Kavanaugh may not appreciate.

Critics in Washington are baffled by the administration’s willingness to give the benefit of the doubt to the Saudis. Both lawmakers and analysts have argued that the lucrative arms and energy deals that underpin the U.S.-Saudi relationship can no longer justify ignoring Riyadh’s abuses, which also include an extensive record of killing civilians in Yemen and a sweeping crackdown on Saudi civil society.

“The White House seems to be saying [the] Trump Doctrine is that the U.S. will ignore your human rights abuses, assassinations or war crimes as long as you buy things from us. He’s got it totally and completely backwards,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) said to my colleague Josh Rogin. “What’s the point of being a military superpower if we lose leverage when we do business with another country?”

Similar complaints came from across the aisle. “I don’t care how much money it is,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said in a TV interview. “There isn’t enough money in the world to purchase back our credibility on human rights and the way nations should conduct themselves.”

Saudi Arabia has already shown that its bark may be worse than its bite. Earlier this year, after Canadian officials spoke against Riyadh’s arrests of activists, the Saudis recalled their ambassador from Ottawa and angrily threatened punitive measures. Those have so far had minimal effect.

"This all comes down to the credibility of Saudi threats, and the credibility of Saudi threats is low,” Thomas Juneau of the University of Ottawa said to my colleague Emily Rauhala. “The U.S. . . . completely has the upper hand.”

Iran probably hangs over the White House’s deliberations, as it has since Trump came to power. A new round of sanctions on Iranian oil exports are expected to take effect Nov. 5. David Sanger of the New York Times reported that White House officials fear the Khashoggi imbroglio “could derail a showdown with Iran and jeopardize plans to enlist Saudi help to avoid disrupting the oil market.”

With almost comic timing, Foreign Affairs published a new anti-Iran manifesto by Pompeo this week. The U.S.'s top diplomat heralded Trump’s “moral clarity” and eagerness to confront “outlaw regimes,” underscoring the vast double standard the White House applies to Riyadh and Tehran.

Try as they might, Trump and his allies will struggle to shift the focus away from MBS, who has personally played a key role in the White House’s project to build an anti-Iran axis in the Middle East. But the crown prince’s impulsiveness and aggressiveness — he is the architect of a distracting regional dispute with Qatar, as well as the intervention in Yemen — is becoming too much of a liability. Now, even senior U.S. senators are calling for him to be sidelined.

“MBS, in his obsession with silencing his critics, has actually undermined the attempt to build an international consensus to pressure Iran,” wrote Daniel Shapiro, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel.

In Washington, there’s also growing scrutiny of Trump’s business interests with the Saudis. On Wednesday, 11 Senate Democrats sent Trump a letter demanding he fully disclose his and the Trump Organization’s financial ties to the kingdom, which date back decades.

“Since Trump’s election, the Saudis have continued to pour money into Trump properties, including being the first publicly reported foreign government to make a payment to a Trump business following Trump’s election,” Carolyn Kenney, a national security policy analyst at the liberal Center for American Progress, said to my colleagues. “Given the fact that Trump, his family members, and his advisers are financially benefiting from Saudi Arabia, it is hard to believe that Trump’s response to the disappearance and alleged killing of Jamal Khashoggi wouldn’t be affected by these benefits.”

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