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The Memo: Saudi storm darkens for Trump

President TrumpDonald TrumpCIA chief threatened to resign over push to install Trump loyalist as deputy: report Azar in departure letter says Capitol riot threatens to 'tarnish' administration's accomplishments Justice Dept. argues Trump should get immunity from rape accuser's lawsuit 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 KushnerThe Hill's 12:30 Report: What to expect for inauguration Secret Service renting K a month apartment near Ivanka and Jared for bathrooms, office space: report Is the Saudi 'city of the future' overly ambitious? 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 KavanaughWhy we need Section 230 more than ever 'Almost Heaven, West Virginia' — Joe Manchin and a 50-50 Senate Murkowski says she is not considering joining Democratic caucus 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 GrahamThe Hill's Morning Report - Biden asks Congress to expand largest relief response in U.S. history McConnell about to school Trump on political power for the last time Additional airlines ban guns on flights to DC ahead of inauguration 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 RyanPaul Ryan will attend Biden's inauguration COVID-19 relief bill: A promising first act for immigration reform National Review criticizes 'Cruz Eleven': Barbara Boxer shouldn't be conservative role model MORE (R-Wis.) said it would be “atrocious” if the Saudis had murdered Khashoggi, echoing similar language from Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioConfirmation hearing for Biden's DNI pick postponed McConnell about to school Trump on political power for the last time The Hill's Morning Report - Trump impeached again; now what? 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 PompeoMike PompeoOn The Money: Retail sales drop in latest sign of weakening economy | Fast-food workers strike for minimum wage | US officials raise concerns over Mexico's handling of energy permits US officials raise concerns over Mexico's handling of energy permits Treasury imposes additional sanctions on Cuba over allegations of 'serious human rights abuse' 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 PowerThe Hill's Morning Report - Trump impeached again; now what? Overnight Defense: Trump impeached for second time | National Guard at Capitol now armed, swelling to 20K troops for inauguration | Alabama chosen for Space Command home The Hill's 12:30 Report: House moves toward second impeachment 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.