Most weeks, New York Magazine writer-at-large Frank Rich speaks with contributor Alex Carp about the biggest stories in politics and culture. Today, the fallout of Jamal Khashoggi’s apparent murder by the Saudis, Donald Trump’s seeming defense of the Kingdom, and what the polls are telling us about the midterms.
The U.S. has a history of largely looking the other way when allegations that raise questions about its relationship with Saudi Arabia appear — of a war-crimes cover-up in Yemen, of endangered dissidents, of complicity in the 9/11 attacks. As the details increasingly point to Jamal Khashoggi’s death being directed from the highest levels of Saudi Arabia’s government, why has this case been different?
Two words: bone saw. It’s safe to say that only a tiny fraction of Americans had heard of Khashoggi before his disappearance. But in a culture riveted by true-crime horror tales, this one is gripping in its cruelty and grotesquerie: The torture, beheading, and dismemberment of an about-to-be-married newspaper columnist who lived in Washington’s Virginia suburbs, carried out in the supposedly safe place of a consulate and apparently recorded besides. The nightmarish account of a single murder has captured the American imagination in a way that thousands of Saudi human-rights atrocities in Yemen, many of them victimizing children, have not. (Yemen itself is known to only a fraction of Americans.)
But will the attention and outrage linger? We can hardly be certain. The Saudis are proven masters at winning (and often buying) support in the corridors of governmental, corporate, and journalistic power in America. Though 15 out of 19 of the 9/11 hijackers were Saudis, the George W. Bush administration’s propaganda campaign persuaded a large segment of the American public that many of the hijackers were Iraqis (none were) and that Saddam Hussein had been the mastermind of the attack rather than Osama bin Laden, who was born in Riyadh to a wealthy family intertwined with Saudi royals. (The Bush family had a decades-long history of financial and personal synergy with the Saudis.) By the time the classified pages of the congressional 9/11 report dealing with Saudi complicity in the attack were belatedly made public in 2016, most of America had moved on. And those pages weren’t fully made public in any case: some three pages’ worth of findings (out of 29) are still redacted.
In a post at The New Yorker this week, Dexter Filkins, who has done some of the toughest on-the-ground reporting on the crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, laments how this vindictive autocrat has been “unquestioned, and even fawned over, by many in the American government and press.” At The Atlantic, David Frum points out the extent to which Bob Woodward carries water for the Saudi royals in Fear. At the Times, one need read only the curated “Readers’ Picks” comments on Thomas Friedman’s most recent column about Khashoggi to find blistering citations of his paper trail on the subject. Then again, the list of those who had eagerly promoted the image of “M.B.S.” as a reformer after having been lavishly stroked by him and his family for years cuts an enormous swath through the top echelons of American power: Silicon Valley, Hollywood, Washington think tanks, news organizations, and Wall Street, as well as politicians of both parties.
When the music stopped with Khashoggi’s murder and embarrassed CEOs started bailing from the crown prince’s “Davos in the Desert” jamboree, the revelations of American deference to a criminal despot were a searing indictment of our own elites. The indictment found its meme when the current secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, shuttled off to Riyadh on a supposed fact-finding mission that yielded no facts but plenty of images of him toadying and yukking it up before the Saudi royals. Don’t underestimate the ability of the Saudis to use its economic and political power to make this story go away, as it has with so many others in the course of its oil-greased relationship with America.
When talking about Saudi state involvement in Khashoggi’s death, Donald Trump has been employing a version of the Brett Kavanaugh defense: “Here we go again with … you’re guilty until proven innocent.” Is this a sign that he thinks the defense will work again, or that he feels too boxed in by the evidence?
Nothing boxes in Trump. He will keep defending the Saudi prince as he has his putative paramour Kim Jong-un, Vladimir Putin, and virtually every other despot on the planet who has crossed his path. Trump defends authoritarian leaders no matter what they do because he aspires to be one (and sometimes succeeds at it). While a few Republican senators in Washington have, for the moment, decried his effort to cover for the Saudis — notably Lindsey Graham — you’ll notice that many others, starting with Mitch McConnell, have ducked the issue. There’s an election going on, and they’d rather talk about the evils of the Democrats than a butcher in the Middle East and Jared Kushner’s complicity with him.
Trump has asked to see a recording of Khashoggi’s murder “if it exists,” but even if he gets it, he’ll find a way to label it a hoax and “fake news” as he did the Access Hollywood video. If the FBI ends up being part of the Khashoggi investigation, he’ll find a way to make its role as limited and opaque as it was in the Kavanaugh “investigation.” Again, we shouldn’t underestimate the ability of Trump, like every other Saudi pawn in America, to drown this story out. His first tactic — distracting cable news with a tweet calling Stormy Daniels “horseface” — didn’t quite do the job, but surely it is only the first in a series.
In an interview with the Washington Post, Nate Silver warns that Americans are once again misreading the polls. In the countdown to the midterms, what should be be watching for?
The polls are so volatile, contradictory, and, in some states and congressional districts, sparse, I’m not sure how to read them or misread them, let alone what to watch for. After the embarrassments of 2016, some poll analysts (like those at the Upshot at the Times) are so careful to lace their prognostications with qualifiers that it’s often hard to decipher what exactly they are saying. In any case, as Silver explains, anyone who expresses certainty about anything is likely to be humbled on November 6. The only thing everyone can agree on is that this is a battle of the bases, and turnout is all.
It’s a fact that the Democrats have not turned out as Republicans have in recent midterm elections. It’s a fact that Republicans are trying to depress any uptick in minority turnout by voter suppression tactics not just in Georgia but in at least eight other states, as well, as clocked by the voting-rights watchdogs at the Brennan Center for Justice. It’s also a fact that Democrats are brilliant at shooting themselves in the foot — witness the already endangered North Dakota senator Heidi Heitkamp’s now recanted newspaper ad incorrectly naming victims of sexual abuse.
The party’s “stars” are no better. Bill and Hillary Clinton are not on the ballot, and Elizabeth Warren has a safe reelection bid in Massachusetts this year, but they nonetheless felt compelled to grab the spotlight from candidates who are in political dogfights during the pre–Election Day stretch. Warren’s gratuitously announced DNA test in response to Trump’s “Pocahontas” taunts seems to have consumed more oxygen in these final days of the campaign than McConnell’s post-election plan to cut Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid to pay for the GOP tax cut. As for the buck-raking Clintons — whose foundation has collected at least $10 million from the kingdom of Saudi Arabia — their unwanted and unseemly rollout of a joint post-election speaking tour, with top tickets costing hundreds of dollars, is nothing if not another incitement for Trump voters to go to the polls and for potential swing Democratic voters to stay home. One is tempted to wish that someone would lock them up.