Between Pompeo’s embarrassing sycophancy and Trump’s disgraceful attempts to cover for the Saudis, the Trump administration has lived down to my extremely low expectations for how they would respond to the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. It comes as no surprise that they are making excuses for Mohammed bin Salman and his government, since this has been an important part of the “Saudi first” foreign policy that the administration has been conducting for the last twenty months. If Pompeo was willing to lie to Congress for the Saudis and their allies last month in his bogus Yemen certification, we should expect him to endorse Saudi attempts to whitewash their role in the murder of a prominent critic. Pompeo may not realize how much damage he is doing to his reputation and his relationship with members of Congress, especially those on the Foreign Relations Committee, but the damage is significant and lasting.
Pompeo’s behavior during his visit to Riyadh was extremely inappropriate under the circumstances, and many observers remarked on how wrong it was.
.. The president has a knack for offering the most preposterous defenses for the most obviously guilty people. The Saudi government is being blamed for Khashoggi’s death because there is no one else that could be responsible. When a government critic is detained and killed by agents of that government in their own consulate, that government is undeniably guilty of murdering him. Trump keeps mentioning the official denials from the crown prince and others as if those matter, but we are far past the point of pretending that we don’t know what happened. The president wants to obfuscate and distract for as long as possible in the hopes that all of this will soon be forgotten, and so he keeps trying to buy time by stalling and refusing to take any action that might put pressure on Riyadh to admit the truth. It doesn’t fool anyone, and it isn’t helping the Saudis very much, because it just convinces members of Congress that they will have to do what the president won’t.
The good news is that Trump is making the relationship with the Saudis more politically toxic by embracing it, and the Saudis are bringing discredit on the Trump administration for its uncritical, reflexive support for them. The more that Trump and his officials lie and cover up for a reckless client, the worse it is for both the administration and the Saudis.
Neither Mr. Trump nor Mr. Pompeo provided any new insights into what had happened to Mr. Khashoggi. But with his comment about presumed guilt, Mr. Trump drew a parallel to the sexual assault accusations made against his newest Supreme Court justice, Brett M. Kavanaugh.
Mr. Trump’s reference to the bitter confirmation battle over Justice Kavanaugh was telling. In that case, he initially took a restrained tone, observing that the judge’s accuser, Christine Blasey Ford, appeared credible in her testimony before the Senate about an alleged sexual assault.
But over time, as the furor threatened to irreparably tarnish his nominee, Mr. Trump discarded restraint. He complained that Justice Kavanaugh had been unfairly accused, raised questions about Dr. Blasey’s account, and even mocked her at a rally.
In the case of Mr. Khashoggi, Mr. Trump first expressed concern about the allegations and warned of severe consequences if the Saudi government were found responsible. But after days of unconvincing denials from the Saudis and growing evidence that Crown Prince Mohammed or his family may have been involved, Mr. Trump is shifting to a tone of defiance.
.. Prince Mohammed, Mr. Trump said, “totally denied any knowledge of what took place in their Turkish consulate.”
.. Asked if the Saudis told him whether Mr. Khashoggi was alive, Mr. Pompeo declined to answer. “I don’t want to talk about any of the facts,” he said. “They didn’t want to either, in that they want to have the opportunity to complete this investigation in a thorough way.”
.. Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, told reporters in Ankara on Tuesday that investigators who searched the consulate on Monday and Tuesday were looking into “toxic materials, and those materials being removed by painting them over.”
.. Turkish news outlets, citing unnamed sources, have reported that Mr. Khashoggi was drugged, and that parts of the consulate and the nearby consul’s residence were repainted after the journalist’s disappearance.
.. Mr. Trump has vowed “severe punishment” if a Saudi hand is confirmed in Mr. Khashoggi’s killing, but has said he does not want the case to affect arms sales that create American jobs.
.. The Saudi version of the story will probably be that officials intended to interrogate and abduct Mr. Khashoggi, spiriting him back to Saudi Arabia, but that they botched the job, killing him instead, the person said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because Saudi officials had yet to talk publicly about their plans.
.. For two weeks, Saudi leaders, including both the king and the crown prince, have denied that their country had anything to do with Mr. Khashoggi’s disappearance and have said that they did not know where he was. Saudi officials have insisted that he left the consulate, safe and free, the same day he entered it, although they have offered no supporting evidence.
But by Monday night, it appeared that the Trump administration and Turkey’s leaders were leaving room for a new version of events: Mr. Trump said after speaking with King Salman that perhaps “rogue killers” had been involved.
At their meeting on Tuesday, Mr. Pompeo “thanked the king for his commitment to supporting a thorough, transparent and timely investigation of Jamal Khashoggi’s disappearance,”
.. “We are strong and old allies,” the crown prince said in English, in brief remarks as the meeting began. “We face our challenges together.”
.. Steven Mnuchin, the Treasury secretary, still plans to attend a Saudi investment forum next week, even as several American businesses and lobbyists have distanced themselves from the country.
At a Senate hearing, Mike Pompeo was confronted with the issue of whether the administration’s actions speak louder than the president’s words.
Four days after President Trump’s stern warning via Twitter to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, national security adviser John Bolton is scheduled to hold a meeting Thursday of Pentagon and other top officials on the administration’s emerging strategy on Iran.
The meeting, which follows Mr. Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear accord and reimpose tough economic sanctions on Tehran, comes as key elements of the administration’s Iran policy remain unclear.
Among them: what the U.S. might give in return for a new agreement with Tehran, and whether Washington is prepared to use military force along with economic pressure to roll back Iran’s assertive posture in the Middle East.
The discussions are to take place among members of the administration’s Principals Committee, a Cabinet-level panel on national security issues that Mr. Bolton chairs and whose members include Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, among other senior officials.
.. The Pentagon, however, isn’t eager to get into a war with Iran at a time when its strategy emphasizes building up capabilities to deter Russia and China, and the outcome of talks with North Korea is still uncertain.
.. To isolate Tehran economically and politically, the administration also threatened sanctions on nations that don’t end imports of oil from Iran by Nov. 4.
.. Mr. Trump said that he was “ready to make a real deal” with Iran. But some former officials believe the goal of others in the administration is to weaken and perhaps even destabilize the Iranian regime.
“What we see from Trump himself is the notion that he can negotiate a bigger and better deal by using pressure to bring the Iranians back to the table with more American leverage,” said Suzanne Maloney, a former State Department official who is at the Brookings Institution. “That view isn’t shared by others in the administration like the national security adviser and secretary of state who see sanctions as an end in itself.”
.. Before the Helsinki summit, Mr. Bolton voiced hope that Mr. Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin might work together to scale back Iran’s role in Syria. But U.S. intelligence experts say that Russia may not have the interest or ability to get Iranian forces out of Syria, and no agreement toward this end was announced in Helsinki.