the national interest

Trump Calls the Saudis As Innocent As Brett Kavanaugh

Trump and Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the Oval Office last March. Photo: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

Brett Kavanaugh’s hearings were an important moment for Donald Trump’s standing with the Republican party elite, because the cause had the patina of legitimacy. Kavanaugh’s defenders could insist he deserved due process, and even though they were the ones denying the due process by denying the FBI the chance to interview all the witnesses, his case was presented in the garb of justice and fairness. As many conservatives joyfully noted, it brought Trump and his party elite into tighter formation than they had ever stood before.

But Trump has a way of humiliating his allies, especially when trying to morally justify their support. In an Associated Press interview, Trump used the almost holy cause of Kavanaugh as a point of reference to vouchsafe the innocence of Saudi Arabia’s kingdom, which nobody doubts has murdered dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi. “Here we go again with you know you’re guilty until proven innocent,” he tells the Associated Press, “I don’t like that. We just went through that with Justice Kavanaugh and he was innocent all the way as far as I’m concerned. So we have to find out what happened.”

The evidence is in fact overwhelming. The New York Times reports that the suspects from the Saudi embassy in Istanbul had tight relationships with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and his regime. Most recently The Wall Street Journal learned Turkey shared an audio recording of the murder with U.S. officials. Trump’s ratcheting professions of support for the all-but-certain murderers, even as evidence of their guilt piles up, is a revealing display of his method of working through what everybody else regards as moral questions without applying even the slightest bit of morality.

Trump, of course, is not a civil libertarian. Trump’s demands to execute the Central Park Five in the absence of any evidence of guilt, and refusal to acknowledge their exoneration when their innocence was proven, shows the kind of justice he metes out to his enemies. He is not only happy to indulge in guilty-until-proven-innocent when it suits him, he will go farther, into guilty-after-proven-innocent.

Yet most humans, and especially public figures, at least strive for the appearance of caring about justice. What’s amazing about Trump is how little interest he has in even concealing his venality.

Trump initially confessed his interest in absolving Saudi Arabia’s kingdom from guilt lay in the fact that it purchased lots of weapons from the United States. “I don’t like stopping massive amounts of money that’s being poured into our country,” he said of the Saudis, “they are spending $110b on military equipment and on things that create jobs for this country.”

Later, he conveyed that he spoke with the Saudi rulers, and seemed assured by their protestations of innocence, as if this had any evidentiary value at all.

There might be ways to finesse the issue, for Trump to punt the question to some kind of investigative body or international commission, to feign concern over the murder while hoping the media loses interest over time. Trump does not care. He is all but telling the world that the Saudis are his trusted allies, and just as he accepts Vladimir Putin’s claims of innocence in election meddling, so too does he accept those of his orb buddies.

An underdiscussed exchange in Trump’s interview with Leslie Stahl Sunday night is his frank explanation about why he mocked Christine Blasey Ford at a rally. After at first denying that he did so, Trump falls back to his real rationale, namely, he won:

Lesley Stahl: And you mimicked Professor Blasey Ford. You mimicked her.

President Donald Trump: Had I not made that speech, we would not have won. I was just saying she didn’t seem to know anything.

Lesley Stahl: No (UNINTEL)—

President Donald Trump: And you’re trying to destroy a life of a man who has been extraordinary.

Lesley Stahl: Why did you have to make fun of her?

President Donald Trump: I didn’t really make fun of her.

Lesley Stahl: Well, they were laughing.

President Donald Trump: What I said the person that we’re talking about didn’t know the year, the time, the place.

Lesley Stahl: Professor Blasey Ford got before the Senate and — and was asked what’s the worst moment. And she said, “When the two boys laughed at me, at my expense.”

President Donald Trump: Okay, fine.

Lesley Stahl: And then I watched you mimic her and thousands of people were laughing at her.

President Donald Trump: They can do what they — I — I will tell you this. The way now Justice Kavanaugh was treated has become a big factor in the midterms. Have you seen what’s gone on with the polls?

Lesley Stahl: But did you have to—

President Donald Trump: Well, I think she was treated with great respect, I’ll — I’ll—

Lesley Stahl: And — but—

President Donald Trump: Be honest with you.

Lesley Stahl: But do you think — you treated her with—

President Donald Trump: There are those that think she shouldn’t have—

Lesley Stahl: Do you think you treated her with respect?

President Donald Trump: I think so, yeah. I did.

Lesley Stahl: But you seem to be saying that she lied.

President Donald Trump: W— you know what? I’m not gonna get into it because we won. It doesn’t matter. We won.

Justifying mockery of a sexual-assault victim — while they insist she mistook her assailant, not even Republicans deny that Ford was assaulted — because he won the vote is not a moral argument. It seems terribly naive and almost quaint at this late date to point it out, but Trump’s lack of interest in even pseudo-morality remains a truly shocking and unique fact about his presidency. The rationale for confirming Kavanaugh is now the same as the rationale for believing the innocence of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman: They are both on Trump’s side, and can therefore commit any crimes they want.

Trump Calls the Saudis As Innocent As Brett Kavanaugh