The Memo: Saudi storm darkens for Trump

President TrumpDonald John TrumpThe Hill's Morning Report - White House, Congress: Urgency of now around budget GOP presses Trump to make a deal on spending Democrats wary of handing Trump a win on infrastructure MORE edged toward a harder line with Saudi Arabia on Thursday. 

But the shift came only after the administration faced pressure for a response to the apparent killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi that critics condemned as timorous and unsteady.

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“Their message is muddled in part because they haven’t settled on policy,” GOP strategist Alex Conant said. “It seems very familiar compared with how they have handled other crises. They often talk before they know what their policy is.”

Referring to the media blitz Trump has undertaken as midterm elections loom on Nov. 6, Conant added, “The president is doing so many interviews but he doesn’t know what he wants to say about Saudi Arabia.”

One problem for the administration is that Trump appears to be caught between two competing imperatives — his desire to appear strong and his reluctance to admit mistakes.

In this case, the most obvious way to show strength is to stand up to the Saudis. But doing so would look like a tacit admission that his administration — and in particular his son-in-law, senior White House adviser Jared KushnerJared Corey KushnerOn The Money: Judge upholds House subpoena for Trump financial records | Trump vows to appeal ruling by 'Obama-appointed judge' | Canada, Mexico lift retaliatory tariffs on US | IRS audit rate falls The Hill's 12:30 Report: Amash under fire after impeachment tweets Ann Coulter: Four myths the media and politicians tell you about our border crisis MORE — had erred in investing so much faith in Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is widely suspected of complicity in Khashoggi’s alleged murder.

Late on Thursday afternoon, Trump made his most direct remarks on Khashoggi.

In quick succession, he told reporters from The New York Times that “unless the miracle of all miracles happens, I would acknowledge that he’s dead,” and then made broadly similar remarks to reporters at Joint Base Andrews before boarding Air Force One.

At Andrews, Trump said it “certainly looks” as if the journalist had been killed and added that the ramifications for whomever was found responsible would “have to be very severe.”

Khashoggi, a Saudi citizen and critic of the royal family who moved to the U.S. in 2017, went to the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2, seeking paperwork he needed for his upcoming marriage. He has not been seen since. Reports sourced to authorities in Turkey have asserted he was tortured, killed and dismembered in the consulate.

Trump had sought, up until Thursday, to emphasize whatever uncertainties still surround the case.

On one occasion, he suggested that “rogue killers” could have been responsible for Khashoggi’s demise. In an interview with The Associated Press, he compared the opprobrium raining down upon the heads of the Saudis with the opposition faced by Supreme Court Justice Brett KavanaughBrett Michael KavanaughSupreme Court sides with Native American hunter as Gorsuch joins liberals Clash with Trump marks latest break with GOP leaders for Justin Amash ACLU, Women's March to hold nationwide protests over abortion bans MORE during his Senate confirmation hearings.

"Here we go again with, you know, you're guilty until proven innocent,” AP quoted Trump as saying. The president later tweeted that the AP’s headline was “very different from my quote and meaning in the story,” though he did not elaborate.

There are some, especially in the conservative world, who laud Trump for an approach that they see as cautious and appropriate.

James Carafano of the Heritage Foundation told The Hill that it was “unrealistic for people to think the United States should be making flash judgments. First of all, what murder investigation is done in a week?”

Carafano, a national security and foreign policy expert, argued that in circumstances like those pertaining to Khashoggi, overreaction was as much of a danger as underreaction.

“The criticism that this is coddling authoritarian states and turning a blind eye — that is a lot of partisan sniping,” he complained.

There have been a number of Republican lawmakers who have used much tougher language than the president, however.

Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamTensions swirl around Iran as administration to brief Congress Press: Justin Amash breaks ranks with party Overnight Defense: Iran tensions swirl as officials prepare to brief Congress | Trump threatens war would be 'end of Iran' | Graham tells Trump to 'stand firm' | Budget talks begin MORE (R-S.C.) called the crown prince — often known in Washington circles as “MBS” — a “wrecking ball” who had “got to go.”

Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanAmash storm hits Capitol Hill Debate with Donald Trump? Just say no Ex-Trump adviser says GOP needs a better health-care message for 2020 MORE (R-Wis.) said it would be “atrocious” if the Saudis had murdered Khashoggi, echoing similar language from Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioTensions swirl around Iran as administration to brief Congress Tensions swirl around Iran as administration to brief Congress Ending the Cyprus arms embargo will increase tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean MORE (R-Fla.) who said it would be “an atrocity.” 

But, at least until Thursday, Trump had emphasized the importance of arms deals between the United States and Saudi Arabia — even though fact-checkers have said his claim that $110 billion in deals have been agreed to is exaggerated.

Disapproval of the administration’s approach intensified after Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoThe Hill's Morning Report - White House, Congress: Urgency of now around budget Tensions swirl around Iran as administration to brief Congress Overnight Defense: Iran tensions swirl as officials prepare to brief Congress | Trump threatens war would be 'end of Iran' | Graham tells Trump to 'stand firm' | Budget talks begin MORE was dispatched to the region.

Pompeo appeared affable while meeting the crown prince in Riyadh. Later, speaking with reporters, Pompeo was asked if the Saudis had said whether Khashoggi was alive or dead. 

“I don’t want to talk about any of the facts. They didn’t want to either,” Pompeo said — a clumsy soundbite that elicited criticism from prominent figures including Samantha PowerSamantha Jane Power10 factors making Russia election interference the most enduring scandal of the Obama era 'Dear Attorney General Barr': Advice from insiders Heather Nauert is the wrong choice for UN ambassador MORE, who served as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations under former President Obama.

For Trump, an abrupt break with the Saudis — perhaps in the form of sanctions — would be incongruous with the backing his administration has given to the crown prince, whom they deemed both a modernizer within the kingdom and someone who would be a useful and aggressive counterweight to Iranian influence in the Middle East.

To Democratic critics, the administration’s approach has contributed to a hollowing-out of American moral authority.

Joel Rubin, a senior State Department official under Obama, said the Trump administration’s approach was “confused, without clarity and without a direction.”

Rubin asserted that the White House seemed to be driven by the hope that “it would move past this, and the issue then just disappears.”

But there seems little chance of that happening for now. On Thursday, even Trump seemed to admit as much.

“This one has caught the imagination of the world, unfortunately,” he told The New York Times.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.