President Trump had a choice. He could side with the findings of the American intelligence community or stand with Saudi Arabia and its Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. He chose the latter in a statement that amounts to an embarrassment for the falsehoods, failed analysis and misconceptions about what serves American character and interests. Issued on Tuesday, it represents another chapter in the president expressing his unfitness for the office.
The American intelligence community reported its “high confidence” that Mohammed bin Salman ordered the gruesome murder and dismemberment of Jamal Khashoggi, a leading Arab journalist who lived in the United States. Intelligence officials did not reach their conclusion lightly. Evidence drives the result, including an audio recording from inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul where Khashoggi entered and did not exit alive. Phone calls have been intercepted linking the crown prince to the killing.
Intelligence officials briefed the president, and yet in his statement, he pushes aside the substance to declare in an off-hand way “maybe he did and maybe he didn’t!” about whether the crown prince knew.
The president’s position echoes his response to the Russian intervention in the 2016 presidential election, when he also ran counter to the findings of the intelligence community. When facts work against his narrative, or appear politically inopportune, he chooses to evade.
What is the narrative in this instance the president seeks to protect? He portrays Saudi investment in the United States as worth failing to hold the crown prince accountable. In doing so, the president engages in characteristic exaggeration and fibs. The Saudis do not actually have plans to invest and spend $450 million here. Neither have they signed up for $110 billion in arms purchases. The amount is $14.5 billion. So they won’t be creating “hundreds of thousands of jobs” or spurring “tremendous economic development.”
The president describes Saudi Arabia as an invaluable strategic partner in combating Islamic extremists and thwarting Iran. Yet in making his case, he neglects how the Saudis often want it both ways, and how in the Yemeni calamity they have been more the aggressors than the Iranians.
In his statement, the president overlooks the leverage of the United States in the relationship. He warns that if “we foolishly cancel these contracts [for military equipment],” the Russians and Chinese would step into the void. That wouldn’t happen easily given how the Saudis have embraced American military technology.
The president stresses that “our relationship is with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.” And the ties are complicated, allowing room for sustaining relations while responding appropriately to the murder of an American resident who as a journalist engaged vigorously in the debate about the future of Saudi Arabia. Instead, the president fanned Saudi untruths about Khashoggi as a member of the Muslim Brotherhood and an “enemy of the state.”
An appropriate American response involves such steps as a suspension of arms sales until a full accounting is made or applying sanctions not just to 17 lesser participants but the architect in the crown prince. Otherwise, the door is open to thugs and autocrats elsewhere, the president having diminished this country’s moral standing and strategic influence in siding with the crown prince and the shifting stories the Saudis have told about what happened.
That leaves the matter for Congress to act, reinforcing what many elsewhere long have admired about the United States, its principles and values, its strength about much more than its economic and military might.