On Thursday, while parrying questions from reporters in the Oval Office, Donald Trump said that when it comes to the idea that Saudi dissident and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi might have been murdered and dismembered inside the Kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul, he (Trump) doesn’t “like it even a little bit.”
If you watch the clip, the President seemed to believe his answer conveyed something definitive about the White House’s position on this extremely contentious geopolitical flashpoint. It’s almost like he was going to go with “well, when it comes to chopping up journalists in consulates, we’re 95% against it and 5% for it” but then decided to go with “I’m glad you asked, because when it comes to autopsy experts using bone saws to cut up reporters, we don’t like it even a little bit.”
Trump’s tone-deaf demeanor and penchant for butchering the English language aside, the really egregious part of Trump’s Oval Office exchange with reporters Thursday came when the President said the prospect of canceling a lucrative arms deal with the Saudis in retaliation for Khashoggi’s murder would be “unacceptable”.
As discussed in the linked post above, America probably shouldn’t enter into arms deals with the Saudis in the first place, because the kingdom has a horrible human rights record and is using its military to lay waste to neighboring Yemen in the course of trying to rout the Iran-backed Houthis, who have demonstrated remarkable resilience since the conflict heated up in 2015.
Fast forward to Saturday and, in a clip from an interview with 60 Minutes, Trump says the following about the Khashoggi situation:
As you’re hopefully aware, Trump’s contention that “nobody knows” what happened to Khashoggi is manifestly false. The Washington Post has variously documented U.S intelligence intercepts that prove the U.S. knew ahead of time about bin Salman’s plans to, at the very least, lure Khashoggi back to Saudi Arabia and capture him.
But beyond that, Turkey has released CCTV footage of the hit team dispatched to murder Khashoggi and one of the members of that team is Salah Muhammad al-Tubaigy, chief of forensic evidence in the Saudi public security directorate of the Interior Ministry.
Now what, do you imagine, an autopsy expert was doing traveling on a private Gulfstream IV with a half dozen other Saudis to Istanbul on the day Khashoggi was murdered, and leaving that same night?
In any event, lawmakers have invoked the The Magnitsky Act, which means Trump is going to have to come up with something within in the next couple of months, lest the Senate should become furious, but as you can see from the 60 Minutes clip, he is not at all willing to risk that arms deal.
According to multiple reports, the administration is already being lobbied heavily to avoid a scenario where defense contractors suffer from any retaliation against Riyadh for Khashoggi’s death.
“One lobbyist for a defense company who spoke on condition of anonymity said worries about a potential across-the-board blockage of Saudi sales by Congress had surfaced in recent days, a development that would hurt a range of contractors”, Reuters says, adding that “even before Khashoggi’s unexplained disappearance, Democratic lawmakers had holds for months on at least four military equipment deals, largely because of Saudi attacks that killed Yemeni civilians.”
Right. And there again, there are serious questions as to whether it makes sense to ink these deals with Riyadh in the first place. Yemen has spiraled into the worst humanitarian crisis on the planet and that’s thanks in no small part to the Saudi-led coalition’s tireless efforts to prevent a scenario whereby Iran-linked militia are allowed to consolidate on the kingdom’s doorstep.
Even the Saudis understand that the optics are bad. Recall how uncomfortable bin Salman got when Trump used a series of absurd flash cards to brag about the arms deals earlier this year during a meeting with the Crown Price (this is from CNN):
This week, Saudi Arabia’s leader-in-waiting, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, paid Trump a return visit, with the President once again reeling off the list of deals they’re doing.
Sitting side by side with the Crown Prince in the Oval Office, Trump wielded a huge check.
“$3 billion … $533 million … $525 million … that’s peanuts for you,” he said looking at MBS.
The Crown Prince was grinning and shaking his head. Trump continued: “$880 million … $645 million … $6 billion … that’s for frigates.”
By the time Trump got to his second card, MBS was looking quite uncomfortable.
Trump continued reeling off a laundry list of arms sales, claiming that all these deals meant “over 40,000 jobs,” before tantalizingly touting deals next worth $700 billion next year.
Later, a source with knowledge of the meeting told me MBS felt humiliated by Trump.
MBS, he said, wasn’t expecting to have the huge cards, detailing billions of dollars of business deals dangled under his nose. It’s not the publicity he came to Washington to get.
In case you need a poignant visual reminder of just how perturbed bin Salman was, here’s the video described in those excerpts:
The proxy war in Yemen is yet another example of Tehran’s efforts to effectively encircle the Sunni powers and while it makes sense that bin Salman would be keen on preventing Iran from realizing its regional ambitions, it’s not at all clear that the U.S. should be particularly keen on supplying the weapons for that struggle. Because at the end of the day, it’s not Shia extremists that are running around Western capitals with suicide vests and flying planes into skyscrapers. Rather, it’s groups who espouse the same ideology that’s institutionalized in the Saudi monarchy.
So while Trump is undoubtedly concerned about irritating American defense contractors, the larger point here is that he (and Jared Kushner) are going to be loath to let the death of a journalist get in the way of their relationship with bin Salman at a time when Washington is in the middle of an all-hands-on-deck effort to alienate Iran and curtail the regional influence of the Quds Force.
As Trump would say: “We’ll see what happens”.