President Trump at a ceremony at the Murabba Palace in Riyadh, on May 20, 2017.
Photo: MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images
In several public statements over the weekend, President Trump seemed to be positioning himself to shrug off further confirmation that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi last month. “You know, who can really know?” Trump mused, when asked on Fox News Sunday if he thinks MBS lied to him.
Meanwhile, Axios offered some insight into what Trump really thinks of the journalist’s murder:
Trump has privately called the assassination “really bad,” but immediately adds that other countries America deals with, including China, do “a lot of bad things,” according to sources with direct knowledge. Trump has also privately told associates he thinks it’s ridiculous that people are making so much of the Saudi murder of one man, given the brutal practices of countries like China.
Here we learn several important things. First, though you wouldn’t know it from his public statements, Trump is aware that the repression and killing of civilians is all too commonplace around the world. Second, despite having ridden a keen understanding of the media into the White House, he doesn’t quite grasp that the spectacle of a fellow writer being tortured to death and dismembered might catch press imaginations rather strongly.
But most of all, we learn that Trump — perhaps surprisingly — doesn’t understand how one image, one crime, one martyr can crystallize a moment into a movement.
The Arab Spring, a year of citizen protests that drove leaders from power in four countries and sparked civil conflicts that are still raging in three, began as an outraged response in North Africa to the suicide by immolation of a Tunisian fruit-seller, Mohamed Bouazizi. Activists — from students to labor unions to pro-democracy groups to Islamists — had tried to organize across the region for years. Anger at the indignity that would drive a man to burn himself alive catalyzed the deep rage they’d been looking to tap all along.
Likewise, the movie Americans play in our heads about the civil rights movement includes Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama, bus to a white man because she was tired after a long day of work. It doesn’t include the years of organizing, training, outreach, and networking that led movement leaders to that day — and to the choice of Parks for the job.
The depth and persistence of anger at the murder of Jamal Khashoggi is a phenomenon that Trump should pay more attention to. The underlying truth is that Americans are unenthusiastic about the alliance with Saudi Arabia. The country scores low in opinion surveys, and has done so consistently since 9/11. Experts point to explanations from the Saudis’ problematic human rights record, especially toward women, to their role in protecting and incubating Al Qaeda, to resentments over oil prices — with a little racism and religious prejudice thrown in. What’s more, even in this age of partisan polarization, the Saudis are unpopular across party lines.
The Democrats have been divided for some time between progressive anger at Saudi policies — most recently over the humanitarian catastrophe the Saudis have unleashed in Yemen — and centrists who appreciate the Saudis’ contributions to security and energy stability. But as Trump has allied more closely with Riyadh, and the civilian toll in Yemen keeps mounting with apparent Saudi indifference, Democratic support for the relationship is ebbing. Meanwhile, Republican members of Congress are keenly aware that opposing Trump on Saudi Arabia doesn’t bring the same threat of retribution from the GOP base that it might on other issues.
That is why last week, House Speaker Paul Ryan was forced to use a procedural move to block a House bill aimed at ending all U.S. military support for the Saudi war in Yemen, which was backed by most Democrats and a few Republicans. And it’s why a bipartisan group of senators, including Trump confidant Lindsey Graham, is pushing legislation that would cut off all offensive arms sales to the kingdom and impose mandatory sanctions on anyone found to have culpability in Khashoggi’s murder — provisions mean to push Trump into a tougher stance against the Saudis.
Meanwhile, the German government has frozen new arms sales to Riyadh and begun to unwind some already-promised arms deals. In consultation with France and the U.K., it has also issued a travel ban on 18 men alleged to have been involved in Khashoggi’s killing, which will have the effect of barring them from 26 countries that coordinate border security under the European Union’s Schengen Area.
Trump may be able to veto or mitigate some of those actions; he may be able to avoid ever hearing the audio of Khashoggi’s death, as he told reporters over the weekend he planned to do. But he will not be able to block out the broader consequences for U.S.-Saudi ties. That’s what the death of one man can do.