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James Mattis and MbS at the Pentagon in March. Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Report after report implicates Saudi agents in the alleged murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and no credible alternative explanation has emerged. The question is becoming whether his disappearance fundamentally changes the U.S.-Saudi relationship and if not, why not.

Why it matters: The Trump administration, led by Jared Kushner, has placed a massive bet on Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) as the partner the U.S. needs in the Middle East and the man to modernize Saudi Arabia. He may well be. He is also proving himself to be a ruthless autocrat responsible for the jailing of his critics, massive civilian casualties in Yemen and — if reports are accurate — the assassination of a U.S. resident and Washington Post columnist outside of Saudi Arabia's borders.

State Dept. spokeswoman Heather Nauert said repeatedly in a briefing today that "we don't know what happened" to Khashoggi. She wouldn't discuss U.S. responses, saying it was "entirely a hypothetical situation."

President Trump, meanwhile, was remarkably blunt when asked whether he'd consider suspending arms sales:

"What good does that do us? There are other things we can do. First I want to find out what happened, and we're looking. Again, this took place in Turkey and to the best of our knowledge Khashoggi is not a United States citizen. ... We don't like it, but as to whether we should stop $110 billion being spent in our country knowing they have four or five alternatives... that would not be acceptable to me."

Context: Promoting human rights is not a foreign policy priority for Trump, and building strong ties with the Saudis is — Saudi Arabia was the first country he visited as president.

  • William Wechsler of the Atlantic Council told Axios' Haley Britzky it's "not unusual" for a U.S. administration to avoid "screaming publicly" in a situation such as this: “What we’ve learned for decades across administrations is that the most productive relations between the United States and Saudi Arabia often take place in private."
  • Thomas Lippman, author of Saudi Arabia on the Edge, says the U.S.-Saudi relationship has never changed “because of the fate of any individual. Nor will it do so now.” He added: “The president and Jared Kushner have found some kind of soulmate in Mohammad bin Salman. … They have too many things going to do anything decisive because of the fate of one guy.”

Things look a bit different on Capitol Hill. Sen. Bob Corker, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, told CNN today: “My instincts tell me there's no question the Saudi government did this." He's one of 22 senators who signed a letter calling on Trump to impose sanctions on anyone found to be responsible.

At a minimum, the growing backlash seems to undermine the massive public relations push MbS has undertaken around the world.

  • He's not just courting political leaders. MbS has met with Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, Elon Musk and Tim Cook, among others. I recently attended a panel at the Bloomberg Global Business Forum in New York hosted by MbS' Misk Foundation and among the participants was Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi.

What to watch: There are billions of dollars tied up in the idea that MbS is a reformer. We'll get an early sign of whether the mood is shifting at the Future Investment Initiative he'll host later this month in Riyadh. Big names are under pressure to pull out. Meanwhile, Virgin's Richard Branson announced today he's suspending talks with the Saudis over his space venture.

Go deeper: What we know about Khashoggi's disappearance.

Go deeper

NRA files for bankruptcy, says it will reincorporate in Texas

Wayne LaPierre of the National Rifle Association (NRA) speaks during CPAC in 2016. Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images

The National Rifle Association said Friday it has filed for voluntary bankruptcy as part of a restructuring plan.

Driving the news: The gun rights group said it would reincorporate in Texas, calling New York, where it is currently registered, a "toxic political environment." Last year, New York Attorney General Letitia James filed a lawsuit to dissolve the NRA, alleging the group committed fraud by diverting roughly $64 million in charitable donations over three years to support reckless spending by its executives.

54 mins ago - Politics & Policy

Biden: "We will manage the hell out of" vaccine distribution

Joe Biden. Photo: Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

President-elect Joe Biden promised to invoke the Defense Production Act to increase vaccine manufacturing, as he outlined a five-point plan to administer 100 million COVID-19 vaccinations in the first months of his presidency.

Why it matters: With the Center for Disease Control and Prevention warning of a more contagious variant of the coronavirus, Biden is trying to establish how he’ll approach the pandemic differently than President Trump.

A new Washington

Photo: Stefani Reynolds/Getty Image

D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser said Friday that the city should expect a "new normal" for security — even after President-elect Biden's inauguration.

The state of play: Inaugurations are usually a point of celebration in D.C., but over 20,000 troops are now patrolling Washington streets in an unprecedented preparation for Biden's swearing-in on Jan. 20.