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President Trump and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the Oval Office on March 20. Photo: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

Even after the CIA concluded with high confidence that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) was responsible for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, President Trump bailed him out in a statement on Tuesday.

Why it matters: There could not have been a better outcome for MBS and his father, King Salman, who have worked to prevent any punitive action against the royal family. They have now received an almost free pass from the U.S. for this and future acts of retribution against critics and journalists. Meanwhile, the Iranian regime will benefit from Saudi Arabia's loss in the American court of public opinion.

Background: The king and crown prince have pleaded ignorance, feigned condolences to the Khashoggi family, attempted to bribe Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to prevent further incrimination, stirred up domestic nationalism, and neutralized potential usurpers in the royal family.

What's new: President Trump's statement underscores his administration's transactional, zero-sum view of international relations. It frames Saudi Arabia as too important to abandon, Khashoggi's murder too puzzling to investigate, and American national security interests too narrow to include human rights. (It also contradicts reports by the CIA and Turkish intelligence, and even public claims by the Saudis.)

What's next: Congress can continue to press the Trump administration on the Khashoggi affair — the U.S. Treasury has so far sanctioned 17 implicated individuals — and other U.S.–Saudi issues, including the catastrophic Saudi–UAE war in Yemen.

  • The Global Magnitsky Act, which was triggered by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Oct. 10, provides legal authority to Trump to sanction human rights violators and requires his administration to report within four months.
  • On Nov. 15, three Republican and three Democratic senators introduced the Saudi Arabia Accountability and Yemen Act, which requires sanctions be imposed within 30 days on anyone linked to Khashoggi's murder.

The bottom line: An era of blatant U.S. permissiveness over abuses of international law by the world's despots — a chapter that arguably began when President Obama abandoned his chemical weapons "red line" in Syria in 2013 — will inhibit dissent and free speech beyond the Middle East. Amid a global backslide on democratic norms, Trump has sent another message that the U.S. is not interested in championing liberal democratic norms.

Adham Sahloul is a masters candidate in international political economy at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and a former researcher at the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Center.

Go deeper

The Biden protection plan

Joe Biden announces his first run for the presidency in June 1987. Photo: Howard L. Sachs/CNP/Getty Images

The Joe Biden who became the 46th president on Wednesday isn't the same blabbermouth who failed in 1988 and 2008.

Why it matters: Biden now heeds guidance about staying on task with speeches and no longer worries a gaffe or two will cost him an election. His staff also limits the places where he speaks freely and off the cuff. This Biden protective bubble will only tighten in the months ahead, aides tell Axios.

Bush labels Clyburn the “savior” for Democrats

House Majority Whip James Clyburn takes a selfie Wednesday with former President George W. Bush. Photo: Patrick Semansky-Pool/Getty Images

Former President George W. Bush credited Rep. James Clyburn with being the "savior" of the Democratic Party, telling the South Carolinian at Wednesday's inauguration his endorsement allowed Joe Biden to win the party's presidential nomination.

Why it matters: The nation's last two-term Republican president also said Clyburn's nod allowed for the transfer of power, because he felt only Biden had the ability to unseat President Trump.

GOP research firm aims to hobble Biden nominees

Alejandro Mayorkas. Photo: Joshua Roberts/AFP via Getty Images

The Republican-aligned opposition research group America Rising is doing all it can to prevent President Biden from seating his top Cabinet picks.

Why it matters: After former President Trump inhibited the transition, Biden is hoping the Republican minority in Congress will cooperate with getting his team in place. Biden hadn't even been sworn in when America Rising began blasting opposition research to reporters targeting Janet Yellen and Alejandro Mayorkas.

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