It is the Trump doctrine laid bare.
By letting Saudi Arabia get away with the murder of US-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the President sent a message of startling clarity about how the United States will conduct its business in the world.
Refusing to break with Saudi strongman Mohammed bin Salman over the killing in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Trump effectively told global despots that if they side with him, Washington will turn a blind eye to actions that infringe traditional US values.
But more than that, by stressing the “billions” of dollars in Saudi investment in the US, Trump made clear that Washington has a price, that principles that generations of Americans have cherished, are for sale.
“The world is a very dangerous place! … It’s called America First!” Trump wrote in a statement, effectively repudiating the concept of American Exceptionalism, the idea that the US is embarked on a unique, moral mission exemplified by support for freedom, democracy and universal values.
He kept up his praise on Wednesday, thanking the Saudis in a tweet for low oil prices, even though the tumble in crude oil owes largely to market fears about a new supply glut and weakening demand.
The President’s decision Tuesday to answer the long-running question of how he will respond to the murder of the Washington Post columnist revealed other pillars of the Trump doctrine in one of the most colloquial and oddly stylistic statements on US foreign policy ever written.
It showed a President willing to ignore and prejudge US intelligence assessments that conflict with his political goals.
His readiness to offer impunity to Saudi Arabia represented another blow to the international rule of law and global accountability, concepts Trump has shown little desire to enforce in nearly two years in office.
The President’s statement is certain to trigger a fierce clash with Congress, where there is bipartisan momentum to punish Saudi Arabia.
Republican Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, blasted Trump’s response.
“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,” he tweeted on Tuesday.
And it may deepen the estrangement between Trump and the intelligence community, given his rejection of a CIA assessment that the crown prince knew about the killing of Khashoggi.
No room for misunderstanding
Trump’s statement was remarkable because it was not just an explanation of Saudi policy. He consciously used the moment to deliver a lesson about how he would wield American power as he redefined the nation’s role in the world.
He essentially argued that although the murder of the Washington Post journalist was “terrible” and could not be condoned, it did not merit the disruption of a strategic relationship he has elevated to extraordinary levels.
“We’re not going to give up hundreds of millions of dollars in orders and let Russia and China have them … it’s a very simple equation for me. I’m about make America great again,” he told reporters.
His decision appeared to suggest that as long as a foreign power enriches the United States it would face no censure for despotic behavior.
Perhaps Trump should get marks for frankness.
Many Presidents have wrestled with the tension between American values and the trade-offs required by realpolitik. Often Washington’s actions – in the Vietnam War for instance or in the war on terror, have been seen by outsiders as falling well short of the lofty principles it has preached to others.
American relations with Saudi Arabia, a key power broker in the Middle East and crucial oil producer vital to the global economy have often fallen on the hypocritical side of this line.
But the pull of the idea that America is leading a group of like-minded nations wedded to democratic, enlightened principles was always strong and while waxing and waning under different Presidents it never disappeared.
Yet Trump is getting rid of any pretense. As Secretary of State Mike Pompeo put it: “It’s a mean nasty world out there,” in an apparent sign that Washington is ready to play the same cynical game as Beijing, Moscow and other challengers to Western power who reject the US-backed international system.
Trump’s pivot shocked many more conventional politicians in Washington.
“I am concerned about our standing in the world and what it says about the United States,” Republican Rep. Francis Rooney of Florida told CNN’s Brianna Keilar.
“From our very beginnings we have been a country founded on important principles of freedom, rule of law. The Declaration of Independence kind of sets the road map. And I don’t think we want to back up on that and cut a break for Saudi Arabia murdering someone,” Rooney said.
Yet Trump’s argument will please his supporters, who reject the premise of the international liberal order and multinational institutions, and believe the previous Obama administration was ineffectual.
And it represented the latest show of force from a President who is showing signs of breaking free from any remaining restraints, and is increasingly confident in a course that has sown historic disruption.
Consequences in Washington and abroad
Tuesday’s events were all more poignant since they coincided with Thanksgiving, the quintessentially American holiday that remembers pioneers who fled tyranny in Europe to found a land built on freedom in the new world.
They will have significant reverberations in Washington and around the world.
After all, the President made clear he is willing to ignore his own intelligence agencies and to blur facts in order to advance his pre-cooked political goals – in this case preserving the relationship with Saudi Arabia.
It is a trend that has also been evident in the President’s dealings with Russian President Vladimir Putin over election meddling and his rejection of intelligence agency assessments that Iran is abiding by a nuclear deal he overturned.
Trump seems especially willing to disregard intelligence if it complicates his desire to court foreign despots like Putin, North Korea’s Kim Jong Un or the crown prince.
Trump’s statement also included a Putin-esque misdirection play designed to cast doubt on the truth as well as it can be established – that Khashoggi was murdered with the acquiescence of the Saudi crown prince.
“It could very well be that the Crown Prince had knowledge of this tragic event – maybe he did and maybe he didn’t!” Trump wrote.
His words could hardly have offered more absolution to the House of Saud especially since the President also recycled Saudi talking points that Khashoggi was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood.
In fact the President opened his statement talking not about Saudi Arabia but Iran, reflecting how US policy in the Middle East is refracted through a prism of the administration’s fixation on the Islamic Republic.
The Saudis are seen by the Trump administration, and the President’s personal envoy and son-in-law Jared Kushner, as crucial to containing the Islamic Republic – a policy that looks increasingly like regime change.
To maintain that bond, the administration has offered logistical support to Riyadh’s air assault against Iran backed rebels in Yemen, that has triggered the world’s worst humanitarian crisis that has left eight million people at risk of famine. The administration has said it will stop refueling Saudi warplanes, but the air raids are still using US and Western ammunition.
The Saudi controversy will intensify Trump’s coming clash with Congress with lawmakers determined to do more than levy sanctions on 17 Saudis named by their government as being involved in the killing of Khashoggi.
Several bills would halt all arms sales to the Saudis. House Democrats may use their new majority next year to do more to probe the Trump-Saudi relationship.
There may be pressure to declassify the CIA assessment of Khashoggi’s murder and attempts to reverse Trump’s policy pivot.
“It’s now up to Congress to reassure the people of Yemen and the international community that the United States still stands for something more than a dollar sign,” said Oxfam America’s Humanitarian Policy Lead, Scott Paul,
There are also calls for Congress to investigate Trump’s past business ties with the Saudis. The President denied any such links on Tuesday.