In an era when Trump’s tweets and constant commentary produce news cycles of shorter and shorter duration, the Khashoggi affair may turn out to be the longest-running Washington plotline of this midterm-election season. The Times’ revelation that Trump was a decades-long tax cheat came and went. The September plea deal by Trump’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort receded from the headlines. The national uproar over allegations of sexual misconduct by the Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh lasted just under three weeks. Yet here we are, a full seventeen days and counting as I write this, with no end in sight as the Trump Administration blusters and blunders about in a search, so far unsuccessful, for a way to end the saga that does not involve a serious rupture with an ally central to its entire Mideast strategy.
I’m not surprised by Washington’s obsession with the story: it’s the Trump Presidency distilled to its morally compromising, press-bashing, truth-denying essence. At a time when many question American leadership in the world, Trump’s combination of credulity and cynicism in response to the brutal murder of a dissident who sought refuge here gives the world’s bad guys yet another reason to cheer. Even many Republicans in Congress are furious at Trump, with the senators Lindsey Graham and Marco Rubio reëmerging as the tribunes of American virtue that they used to be, demanding Trump take tough action against the Saudis in response. Chris Murphy, the Democratic senator from Connecticut, told me that this particular outrage, in a world full of them, has resonated because “it’s a spy thriller, a page-turner.” He believes that dynamic will continue. Of the Saudis, he said, “Every day that goes by they don’t try to explain what happened is another day their credibility starts to evaporate in Congress.”
Already, it’s clear on Capitol Hill that American politics toward Saudi Arabia have shifted dramatically. In May of Trump’s first year in office, when I talked with Murphy about his efforts to get Congress to sanction Saudi Arabia over its brutal war in neighboring Yemen, Murphy’s was a lonely fight. Now it’s a bipartisan consensus. “I’m mad and frustrated that it took the murder of one journalist for people to start paying attention to the murder of thousands of civilians inside Yemen, but still I see this as a belated turning point in our relationship with Saudi Arabia,” Murphy told me on Thursday. “I don’t put it outside the realm of possibility that the Saudis pull a rabbit out of a hat, but right now I don’t see how Congress continues to approve arms sales or maintain its unconditional approval for the war in Yemen.” If the Democrats take control of one or both houses of Congress next month, Murphy and others I spoke with expect more fallout, including investigations of Trump’s business interests with the Saudis (the President falsely claimed to have none at all, in one of the week’s more brazen tweets) and the extensive dealings between Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and the Saudi prince known as M.B.S., with whom Kushner has so famously bonded. [Continue reading…]