Other presidents have defended Saudi Arabia, experts say Trump's response was different
More often than not, the United States and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia have been at odds over policy issues and fundamental values, yet American presidents going back to Franklin D. Roosevelt, have overlooked Saudi indiscretions for the sake of preserving strategic and economic ties.
Members of Congress, Washington's foreign policy establishment and experts say President Donald Trump's went above and beyond previous presidents in defending the U.S.-Saudi relationship in general and the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) in particular after he was implicated in the murder of Washington Post journalist and Saudi dissident, Jamal Khashoggi.
The White House issued a statement Tuesday sprinkled with exclamation points and strongly defending U.S.-Saudi ties as integral to the president's "America First" platform. It began with a series of unchecked assertions about Iran and the size of U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia before addressing the "horrible crime" against Khashoggi.
"King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman vigorously deny any knowledge of the planning or execution of the murder of Mr. Khashoggi," Trump stated. "Our intelligence agencies continue to assess all information, but it could very well be that the Crown Prince had knowledge of this tragic event – maybe he did and maybe he didn’t!" Trump continued that "we may never know all the facts."
Outgoing Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Bob Corker, R-Tenn., told WTVC NewsChannel9 he was "astounded" by Trump's statement. Corker later tweeted, "I never thought I'd see the day a White House would moonlight as a public relations firm for the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia."
Aaron David Miller, who advised six secretaries of state in Republican and Democratic administrations, said during 25 years in public service he "never saw presidential cred[ibility] so badly compromised." He tweeted, "In a mere 633 words, Trump undermined CIA credibility, boosted that of a murderous repressive regime, emptied US foreign policy of any moral principle and hyperventilated on what Saudi can offer US." Other than that it was a good statement.
Award-winning author and journalist, Thomas Lippman, who specializes in U.S.-Saudi affairs, said he expected the administration to defend the bilateral relationship but not in the "breathless" style of the official White House release. "The policy decision was entirely predictable. The statement, however, was horrifying in its ignorance and its breathless schoolboy writing style," he said. "And it's factually wrong."
Last week, the Trump administration sanctioned 17 Saudi nationals responsible for murdering Khashoggi in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2. The sanctions were imposed shortly after Saudi Arabia concluded its own internal investigation of the matter. A Saudi prosecutor announced charges against 11 individuals associated with the killing and sentenced five to death.
The Central Intelligence Agency conducted its own review of the case and assessed that Mohammed bin Salman was responsible for the murder, according to multiple reports. The CIA considered circumstantial evidence regarding the crown prince's central role in government affairs and his ties to the individuals charged in the murder. U.S. officials familiar with the matter have expressed "high confidence" in the agency's findings. The Saudi government has repeatedly changed its account of Khashoggi's disappearance and murder but consistently denied the crown prince's involvement.
The president told reporters Tuesday that the CIA has "nothing definitive" to show that MBS was directly responsible for Khashoggi's murder. The State Department also withheld judgment, saying earlier this week that there were still "numerous unanswered questions."
The public dismissal of the intelligence community's assessment will likely to damage America's credibility, said Karen Young, a Middle East scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. "It makes us look like we don't have our act together as a cohesive government and it makes the United States look vulnerable to influence," she said. Rather than delivering a message of U.S. support for the kingdom and other Gulf States allies, Young noted, "I think the more likely scenario is that it makes Trump look weak."
Again, Trump is not the first president to support the Saudis in spite of gross human rights abuses or other issues at odds with America's interests and values. President Barack Obama and his administration criticized Saudi Arabia's war in Yemen and issued scathing reports on human rights violations while also authorizing more than $60 billion in arms sales. President George W. Bush publicly pushed for "democracy" to take the place of the Saudi monarchy while staying virtually silent about the 15 Saudi nationals involved in the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.
"Every president has had to confront the reality that we and the Saudis have significant differences in our values and sometimes in our policies but we manage to work around those and maintain a strong, productive relationship," said Gerald Feierstein, the vice president of the Middle East Insitute and former U.S. ambassador to Yemen. That relationship requires speaking clearly in defense of American interests and values.
"We can have a very positive productive relationship with Saudi Arabia without helping them cover up for heinous crimes," he said.
Analysts have raised concerns that Trump's deference to the Saudi royal family will send a green light to other human rights abusers in the region and worldwide. At the same time, Trump has publicly praised world leaders who engage in repression and human rights abuses like Vladimir Putin of Russia, Kim Jong Un of North Korea, Xi Jinping of China and Rodrigo Duterte of the Phillippines. "The light couldn't be any greener," Lippman stated. "It's Tyrants R' Us."
While Trump's defense of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman may have been intended to shore up the U.S.-Saudi relationship in the face of mounting scrutiny, it will likely have the opposite effect of provoking an even stronger anti-Saudi backlash from the public and Congress. Feierstein warned, "As long as Mohammed bin Salman is seen as the reflection of Saudi Arabia in the United States, it's going to create problems in terms of popular support and congressional support."
Congress was already souring on America's historically complicated relationship with Riyadh before the Khashoggi incident. The president's response only fueled lawmakers' anger and frustration, said Sen. Bob Corker.
Calling the president's statement "unnecessarily provocative," Corker told NewsChannel9, "It was almost as if he sent it in this manner to ensure that many people in our country ... were outraged by what he was saying. I'm not sure how this furthers the cause, especially in an environment when Congress is already in a position where they want to respond in a negative way."
On Tuesday, Corker and the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, Bob Menendez of New Jersey, sent a letter to the White House requiring the administration to make a final determination as to whether MBS was responsible for Khashoggi's murder. Under the Global Magnitsky Act, the administration has until February to decide whether it will impose sanctions on the crown prince for gross violations of human rights.
In the meantime, the Senate is expected to vote on a resolution that would block U.S. arms sales and military aid to Saudi Arabia for as long as the kingdom is involved in the war and humanitarian crisis in Yemen.
Sen. Bernie Sanders tweeted, "Trump is clearly very afraid of the prospect of the Senate delivering a serious rebuke to his policy by voting to end U.S. support for the Yemen war. But that is exactly what we will do when we vote on SJ Res 54 next week."The Senate previously considered the resolution in March and voted 55-44 to table it.
In the House of Representatives, Democrats are considering an investigation of President Trump's personal business interests in Saudi Arabia after the president referred to $450 billion in Saudi investments in the United States. According to reports, they intend to look into the matter when they retake the majority in January.
Former CIA Director John Brennan also called on Congress to obtain and declassify the CIA's findings on Khashoggi's death, tweeting, "No one in Saudi Arabia—most especially the Crown Prince—should escape accountability for such a heinous act."
Trump acknowledged his critics in Congress, saying he will "consider whatever ideas are presented to me, but only if they are consistent with the absolute security and safety of America." More likely, Trump will refuse to sign legislation that he believes threatens the bilateral relationship.
It is rare but not inconceivable for a bipartisan majority in Congress to override a president's defense of Saudi Arabia.
In 2016, Congress voted on the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA), a bill to allow families of 9/11 victims to sue Saudi officials in U.S. court. Riyadh threatened to dump billions of dollars in U.S. Treasuries if the bill passed and Obama used his first presidential veto to try to kill the bill. Ultimately, his veto was overridden by a nearly unanimous 97 -1 vote in the Senate and 348–77 in the House.