The Memo: Trump in a corner on Saudi Arabia

 
In the wake of the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Trump has appeared ambivalent about the right response to the kingdom and its crown prince, Mohammed Bin Salman, whom the U.S. administration has previously backed.
 
Trump’s son-in-law and senior White House adviser Jared KushnerJared Corey KushnerTrump throws support behind criminal justice bill Trump says he will decide Nielsen's fate 'shortly' McConnell outlines hurdles to criminal justice reform MORE was an emphatic supporter of Mohammed, often known in Washington circles by his initials, MBS.
 
On Friday, Trump said he viewed the latest Saudi statement as credible and called the arrest of 18 Saudi nationals in connection with the case "a great first step."
ADVERTISEMENT
 
But the kingdom's statement — its first acknowledgement after more than two weeks that Khashoggi was killed inside its consulate in Istanbul — drew derision in Washington, including from Republican lawmakers such as Sens. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamSenators return to Washington intent on action against Saudis Bill to protect Mueller blocked in Senate McConnell: Mueller probe should be allowed to finish MORE (S.C.) and Bob CorkerRobert (Bob) Phillips CorkerSenators return to Washington intent on action against Saudis Paul Ryan shares video of Mitt Romney dropping by in Washington Senate GOP readies for leadership reshuffle MORE (Tenn.). Graham has, of late, been a strong Trump ally.
 
Nine other GOP senators, as well as Graham and Corker, have signed a letter to Trump calling for an investigation into whether sanctions should be levied against individual Saudis over Khashoggi’s death. Those sanctions could target the crown prince himself or his allies.
 
The Republican critiques point to a larger problem for Trump.
 
The Saudis are not viewed sympathetically even by conservative foreign policy voices or by Trump’s broader base, which tend to regard U.S. support for Riyadh as a necessary evil aimed at countering Iranian influence in the Middle East.
 
That makes it harder for Trump to gain traction with his case, outlined this week, that the Saudis have been somehow treated unfairly.
 
Trump twice compared the Saudis’ situation with that of Supreme Court Justice Brett KavanaughBrett Michael KavanaughVermont Democrats cancel events with Michael Avenatti his arrest for domestic violence Avenatti arrested over alleged domestic violence: police Washington politics may change, but Donald Trump will stay same MORE during his confirmation hearings — first, in an interview with The Associated Press on Tuesday and, in milder form, while speaking to reporters on Friday.
 
But while Kavanaugh’s confirmation was divisive in the nation at large, it was very popular with Trump’s conservative base.
 
The same is hardly true of Saudi Arabia.
 
Back on Oct. 10, commentator Rod Dreher wrote in The American Conservative that “MBS is making a fool of Trump now” and expressed the hope that “Congress bloodies Saudi Arabia’s nose.”
 
A Gallup poll in February found that 55 percent of the American public had an unfavorable view of Saudi Arabia, while only 41 percent viewed the kingdom positively.
 
Undaunted, Trump has repeatedly emphasized the importance of Saudi Arabian business to the U.S.
 
Shortly before the new Saudi statement was issued on Friday, his remarks to reporters included the assertion that “Saudi Arabia’s been a great ally, they’ve been a tremendous investor in the United States."
 
In the wake of the statement, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders issued a careful and tentative response, promising only that the U.S. would “closely follow” developments.
 
Even people loyal to Trump admit he finds himself in a corner on the issue.
 
Asked about how enthusiastic Kushner and Trump had previously seemed with regard to the crown prince, one former Trump campaign aide said: “Everybody was! The New York Times wrote glowing things about him, and we were all wrong.”
 
But, this source added, “I don’t think there is much doubt that he did it and now the Saudis have to fix the problem. Over history, we’ve tolerated [Saudi human rights abuses] and you can’t tolerate things like this.”
 
The Friday evening statement was seen as the beginning of a Saudi effort to quell the storm over Khashoggi’s killing, but U.S. lawmakers quickly blasted the effort.
 
A statement released through state-run media said that 18 Saudis had been arrested and are under investigation in the case. Five officials were also said to have been fired.
 
The Saudis now claim that Khashoggi, 60, died in a fist fight. They had previously said that he had left their consulate in Istanbul by a back entrance.
 
Turkey has said Khashoggi was tortured, dismembered and killed by a Saudi team that had been flown in for those purposes.
 
“To say that I am skeptical of the new Saudi narrative about Mr. Khashoggi is an understatement," Graham tweeted Friday.
 
In a follow-up tweet, he wrote: “First we were told Mr. Khashoggi supposedly left the consulate and there was blanket denial of any Saudi involvement. Now, a fight breaks out and he’s killed in the consulate, all without knowledge of Crown Prince.”
 
On one hand, Republicans argue that it is important for strategic reasons for the U.S. to stay close to the Saudis, particularly as a counterweight to Iranian influence.
 
On the other, the combination of the Saudi royal family’s support for the hard-line Wahhabi strain of Islam, the kingdom’s generally dismal record on human rights and the fact that 15 of the 19 hijackers in the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks were Saudi nationals, means there is no real enthusiasm for doing more than is strictly necessary to back up Riyadh.
 
In an interview with Katy Tur of MSNBC on Friday afternoon, Sen. John KennedyJohn Neely KennedyMORE (R-La.) said that a tough challenge for any U.S. president was to “deal with an authoritarian government that offends American values but that has to be dealt with because of American interests.”
 
Later in the same interview, Kennedy asked rhetorically, “How do we condemn this reprehensible conduct without shifting the balance of power in the Middle East?”
 
It was the attempt to maintain an acceptable equilibrium that led the administration to take such a supportive stance toward Crown Prince Mohammed from the outset. Kushner journeyed to Riyadh to meet him, while Trump’s first overseas trip after entering office was to a gilded summit in the Saudi capital.
 
Backing away from that position now would seem like an acknowledgment of error — and would potentially fuel criticism of Kushner’s prominence on Middle East issues, despite a dearth of diplomatic experience.
 
But standing by the Saudis may not be tenable, either.
 
Trump allies contacted by The Hill on Friday were notably reticent about the issue.
 
“It’s a bit outside our scope,” one normally voluble outside activist texted, declining to comment further.
 
“To a large extent, people understand that the rational for the relationship isn’t really a common set of values — that doesn’t really exist,” said Gerald Feierstein of the Middle East Institute, who also served as U.S. ambassador to Yemen under then-President Obama. “But it does reflect shared interests.”
 
That balancing act is made much more difficult now — something which causes some experts to blast the Trump administration for its closeness to the crown prince in the first place.
 
“I think it is certainly embarrassing,” said Gregory Gause, head of the Department of International Affairs at the Bush School of Government and Public Affairs at Texas A&M University.
 
“The administration really overextended itself here. I don’t think American administrations should be in the business of picking favorites in successions in Gulf monarchies.”
 
The Trump administration clearly got into that business.
 
Now it is grappling with the consequences.
 
The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.