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Saudi crown prince's charm offensive coming undone

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.