In President Trump’s first 22 months in office, most of the scandals that have made the front page of the New York Times have been self-inflicted: the dysfunctional roll-out of the Muslim travel ban; the firing of FBI Director James Comey; the impolitic potshots on Twitter; the disastrous Charlottesville press conference. Name a crisis, and it’s more than likely it was initiated by the president’s own hand.
The mysterious disappearance and likely murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist and Saudi dissident, by a 15-man Saudi hit squad dispatched to Turkey on the orders of the al-Saud royal family is one of those incidents that has nothing whatsoever to do with Trump. While Democrats on Capitol Hill, editorial writers at the Washington Post, and progressive grassroots organizations have tried to make a connection between Khashoggi's killing and Trump’s glad-handing of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the only entity at fault for this sorry episode is an oppressive Saudi government that has been kidnapping and detaining dissidents and political activists for decades.
Khashoggi's fate, however, will turn into another bad news story for Trump if he doesn’t make the right decisions in response to what increasingly appears to be an assassination sanctioned at the highest levels of the Saudi leadership. Trump’s remarks on Wednesday expressing revulsion and declaring how “sad” and “bad” the situation is won’t cut it. There are times when a president can’t afford to look timid, exhibit cluelessness, or tout ignorance; a deliberate, brazen attack against a prominent journalist and U.S. resident is one of those times.
What should Trump do that he already isn’t doing?
For one, he needs to take this far more seriously than he is. A wave of the hand or waiting for this thing to blow over will only compound the concern in Washington (some concern justified, some not) that Trump doesn’t understand the moment he’s in. The president needs to make it abundantly clear in his public remarks and in private talks with senior Saudi officials that the U.S. regards an attack on a journalist as an attack on journalism. Period.
Second, Trump should order his national security team to immediately scour the considerable intelligence already collected about Khashoggi's disappearance in order to determine as quickly as possible whether Riyadh was involved (although the answer to this question grows more obvious by the hour), what that involvement is, who took part in the assassination, who aided it, and who gave the kill order. This is precisely what the Senate Foreign Relations Committee has instructed the administration do; there is no reason the White House can’t complete this assessment faster than the Magnitsky law requires.
Most important, however, Trump must stop with the delusion that Saudi Arabia is a friend of the U.S. or that Mohammed bin Salman is a golden-boy of the Arab world. Washington and Riyadh have few shared interests (counterterrorism, stable oil markets, richer economies are three big exceptions) and even fewer shared values. The Saudi government is as brutal, autocratic, and repressive as the rest of the region’s governments — any country that still executes people by sword in the 21st century is no beacon of light. It’s long past time for treating the Saudi royals with so much deference.
The U.S.-Saudi relationship needs a deep rethink. President Trump can help bring it about.
Daniel DePetris (@DanDePetris) is a contributor to the Washington Examiner's Beltway Confidential blog. His opinions are his own.