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

7 hours ago - Podcasts

Facebook boycott organizers share details on their Zuckerberg meeting

Facebook is in the midst of the largest ad boycott in its history, with nearly 1,000 brands having stopped paid advertising in July because they feel Facebook hasn't done enough to remove hate speech from its namesake app and Instagram.

Axios Re:Cap spoke with the boycott's four main organizers, who met on Tuesday with CEO Mark Zuckerberg and other top Facebook executives, to learn why they organized the boycott, what they took from the meeting, and what comes next.

Boycott organizers slam Facebook following tense virtual meeting

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Civil rights leaders blasted Facebook's top executives shortly after speaking with them on Tuesday, saying that the tech giant's leaders "failed to meet the moment" and were "more interested in having a dialogue than producing outcomes."

Why it matters: The likely fallout from the meeting is that the growing boycott of Facebook's advertising platform, which has reached nearly 1000 companies in less than a month, will extend longer than previously anticipated, deepening Facebook's public relations nightmare.

Steve Scalise PAC invites donors to fundraiser at Disney World

Photo: Kevin Lamarque-Pool/Getty Images

House Minority Whip Steve Scalise’s PAC is inviting lobbyists to attend a four-day “Summer Meeting” at Disney World's Polynesian Village in Florida, all but daring donors to swallow their concern about coronavirus and contribute $10,000 to his leadership PAC.

Why it matters: Scalise appears to be the first House lawmakers to host an in-person destination fundraiser since the severity of pandemic became clear. The invite for the “Summer Meeting” for the Scalise Leadership Fund, obtained by Axios, makes no mention of COVID-19.