President Trump’s efforts to walk a fine line on Saudi Arabia could soon prove untenable, as demands for action cross the partisan divide.
In the wake of the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Trump has appeared ambivalent about the right response to the kingdom and its crown prince, Mohammed Bin Salman, whom the U.S. administration has previously backed.
Trump’s son-in-law and senior White House adviser Jared Kushner was an emphatic supporter of Mohammed, often known in Washington circles by his initials, MBS.
On Friday, Trump said he viewed the latest Saudi statement as credible and called the arrest of 18 Saudi nationals in connection with the case “a great first step.”
But the kingdom’s statement — its first acknowledgement after more than two weeks that Khashoggi was killed inside its consulate in Istanbul — drew derision in Washington, including from Republican lawmakers such as Sens. Lindsey Graham (S.C.) and Bob Corker (Tenn.). Graham has, of late, been a strong Trump ally.
Nine other GOP senators, as well as Graham and Corker, have signed a letter to Trump calling for an investigation into whether sanctions should be levied against individual Saudis over Khashoggi’s death. Those sanctions could target the crown prince himself or his allies.
The Republican critiques point to a larger problem for Trump.
The Saudis are not viewed sympathetically even by conservative foreign policy voices or by Trump’s broader base, which tend to regard U.S. support for Riyadh as a necessary evil aimed at countering Iranian influence in the Middle East.
That makes it harder for Trump to gain traction with his case, outlined this week, that the Saudis have been somehow treated unfairly.
Trump twice compared the Saudis’ situation with that of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh during his confirmation hearings — first, in an interview with The Associated Press on Tuesday and, in milder form, while speaking to reporters on Friday.