Read the first paragraph of this report from Shane Harris in the Washington Post and think about it for a moment:
The Trump administration and the Saudi royal family are searching for a mutually agreeable explanation for the death of journalist Jamal Khashoggi — one that will avoid implicating Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is among the president’s closest foreign allies, according to analysts and officials in multiple countries.
I assume that is based on information from reliable sources. And what it says is truly shocking: The White House is conspiring with the Saudi government to cover up a murder.
Here's another passage from the New York Times in an article about how Saudi Arabia is considering pinning the blame on a top general, presumably with the relieved permission of President Trump and Jared Kushner, who, according to the Intercept, regularly texts his good buddy Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) on WhatsApp:
Jared Kushner, Mr. Trump’s son-in-law and Middle East adviser, has been urging the president to stand by Prince Mohammed, according to a person close to the White House and a former official with knowledge of the discussions.
Mr. Kushner has argued that the outrage over Mr. Khashoggi’s disappearance and possible killing will pass, just as it did after other Saudi errors like the kidnapping of the prime minister of Lebanon and the killing of a busload of children in Yemen by a Saudi airstrike.
The Times edited that paragraph later to eliminate the damning detail. But the point still stands.
At first Trump acted as though he didn't know anything about it all, which was obviously daft. Word of Khashoggi's disappearance into the Saudi consulate in Istanbul was almost immediately reported and U.S. intelligence certainly knew about it. Then, after speaking with King Salman on the phone, Trump mused publicly about "rogue killers" possibly having done the deed but still refused to admit that the Saudis had been involved, running a potential alternative theory up the flagpole. He has said repeatedly he doesn't want to disturb his massive "arms deals," most of which were negotiated during the Obama administration and none of which add up to the massive dollar amounts he claims.
Meanwhile, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo flew over to Riyadh and let himself be photographed yukking it up with MBS, who the administration insists is conducting a thorough "investigation" into a crime he is suspected of perpetrating. Upon Pompeo's return to Washington, he assured the public that we would be provided with the results shortly -- as if they would have any credibility at all.
All this is happening as the global media is reporting hourly on the details of this gruesome homicide, apparently ordered by a young thug who believes he can literally get away with the murder of a journalist in a foreign country without paying a price. In a way, you can't blame him. MBS is said to be an admirer of Vladimir Putin, who has allegedly ordered the assassination of Russians on foreign soil and is commonly known to kill journalists and political rivals in his own country. Nobody says much about that. President Trump has defended that, saying, "There's a lot of killing." It hasn't seemed to have hurt Putin's prestige or power on the world stage. And it has sent a powerful message to his critics: Watch your backs; I can get you anywhere.
MBS has emulated Putin in a number of ways in the two years since he assumed power. He abducted the Lebanese prime minister, impulsively ordered a blockade of Qatar, and escalated the war in Yemen to even more brutal levels, targeting civilians, especially children. He rounded up a group of cabinet ministers and wealthy rivals and held them hostage in the Riyadh Ritz-Carlton, reportedly using torture and plenty of muscle to relieve them of their wealth and influence. (Kushner was rumored to have provided him with U.S. intelligence about some of them.) Not only did nothing happen to the prince after that, he has been feted in foreign capitals as if he were Bruce Springsteen.
As with what Trump describes as his love affair with Kim Jong-un, Kushner -- Trump's top strategist in charge of Middle East peace (and emolument management) -- had already established a tight bro-on-bro relationship with MBS, flying over to Riyadh for all-nighters with the young prince "swapping stories and planning strategy." MBS has reportedly said to his close associates that he has Kushner "in his pocket," which seems to be accurate.
Trump believes that all foreign policy is based upon how nice leaders are to him personally. And the Saudis were very nice indeed when he went on his first big foreign trip. They gave him bling, they promised arms sales and they saw right away that he was in way over his head. He was happy to throw all the U.S. eggs in that basket, assured by Kushner that this would lead to many excellent results, with Iran marginalized, Israel secure and everyone living happily ever after. It's an impossibly naive strategy.
Normally, one would assume that the far more worldly Saudis would play it smarter. But as it turns out, their own man of the future, MBS, is equally inept with a similar, if obviously less inhibited, authoritarian worldview. Torturing and killing a U.S. resident who wrote for the Washington Post was a very risky move with little upside.
Again, you can't blame him for thinking he would easily get away with it. After all, the most powerful man in the world calls the press evil and commonly points them out to his supporters as "the enemy of the people." And after all, Khashoggi was explicitly banned from writing in newspapers, appearing on TV or going to conferences in his home country back in November of 2017 by MBS because he had criticized Donald Trump. No doubt the prince assumed Trump would be grateful to see one of his critics "taken care of."
He's probably right. On Thursday evening, in the middle of this horrific international incident, Trump praised an American politician for beating up a reporter:
Ben Jacobs' newspaper responded:
Of course Trump will not apologize. His followers love it. Some of them have now embarked on a campaign to smear Jamal Khashoggi so that Trump's cover-up has cover of its own. How long will it be before Trump repeats these smears at a campaign rally?
MBS may not survive this. The loss of prestige and economic blowback on his country is intense, and he's shown himself to be an unfit leader. But he likely has nothing to fear from the U.S., at least under the current administration. Donald Trump is with him all the way.