Nov 21, 2018

After Trump statement, it falls to Congress to hold Saudis accountable

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

In photos: We've seen images like the protests in Minneapolis before

Photo: Kerem Yucel/AFP/MPI/Getty Images

The photos of protests around the country following the death of George Floyd during an encounter with Minneapolis police are hauntingly familiar. We’ve seen them many times before, going back decades.

Why it matters: "What is also unmistakable in the bitter protests in Minneapolis and around the country is the sense that the state is either complicit or incapable of effecting substantive change," Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, an assistant professor of African-American studies at Princeton University writes in the New York Times. The images that follow make all too clear how little has changed since the modern Civil Rights Movement began in the 1950s.

Updated 13 mins ago - Politics & Policy

Coronavirus dashboard

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

  1. Global: Total confirmed cases as of 11 a.m. ET: 5,968,693— Total deaths: 365,796 — Total recoveries — 2,520,587Map.
  2. U.S.: Total confirmed cases as of 11 a.m. ET: 1,749,846 — Total deaths: 102,900 — Total recoveries: 406,446 — Total tested: 16,099,515Map.
  3. Economy: The future of mobility in the post-pandemic worldGeorge Floyd's killing and economic calamity are both part of America's unfinished business.
  4. Supreme Court: Chief Justice Roberts sides with liberals in denying challenge to California's pandemic worship rules.
  5. Public health: Hydroxychloroquine prescription fills exploded in March.
  6. 2020: North Carolina asks RNC if convention will honor Trump's wish for no masks or social distancing.
  7. Business: Fed chair Powell says coronavirus is "great increaser" of income inequality.

The aftermath of George Floyd's death: Everything you need to know

A mural outside Cup Foods in Minneapolis, near where George Floyd was killed in an encouner with police. Photo: Steel Brooks/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin is in jail under $500,000 bail on charges of third-degree murder and manslaughter after a video of him kneeling on George Floyd's neck for more than eight minutes and Floyd's death catapulted the country's major cities into a state of protest.

The big picture: Floyd's fatal run-in with police is the latest reminder of the disparities between black and white communities in the U.S. and comes as African Americans grapple with higher death rates from the coronavirus and higher unemployment from trying to stem its spread.