Secretary of State Pompeo meets with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Riyadh, on October 16, 2018. Photo: Leah Millis/AFP via Getty Images

If U.S.–Saudi relations depended solely on President Trump’s and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s (MBS) wishes, the tragic Khashoggi affair would likely have blown over by now. But Congress and the U.S. media appear unwilling to let that happen, while MBS' opponents in Saudi Arabia might seize on this fiasco to question his fitness to rule.

The big picture: MBS is gambling that he can escape this crisis by doubling down on support for the Trump administration's policies — confronting Iran, making up for lost Iranian oil, and bankrolling U.S. efforts in northeast Syria, among others. This approach could work with Trump, who concocted the story of potential rogue agents as culprits and compared the unjust treatment of MBS to that of Justice Brett Kavanaugh. But it remains to be seen whether attempts to smooth relations at the top can withstand tensions from below.

Members of Congress have increasingly become convinced that Khashoggi was murdered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on high-level orders. This is true not merely for Democrats, and not merely for known Saudi critics. Senator Lindsey Graham, for example, voiced his unqualified condemnation, along with Senators Bob Corker, Marco Rubio and others. This crowd will only expand if the House changes hands next month. The crown prince is about to find out whether his investment in Trump will protect him from potential Congressional action, such as blocking arms sales or defunding support for Saudi-Emirati operations in Yemen.

On the Saudi side, internal debates are far less public and media reports of dissent within the royal family far less substantiated. Still, MBS’ remarkable ascent, coupled with his rash decisions on Yemen, Lebanon and Qatar, has undoubtedly rankled some, and the fallout from Khashoggi’s murder validates their concerns.

Reality check: U.S. and Saudi internal dynamics are closely intertwined: If the Trump approach prevails, and U.S.–Saudi relations revert to quasi-normalcy, dissenting Saudi voices likely will remain quiet; if Congress acts, the domestic Saudi case against a crown prince who mismanaged the country’s most important bilateral relationship will strengthen.

The bottom line: It would be foolhardy to bet against the Trump–MBS duo getting its way: While a penchant for fabrication on Trump's part and for intimidation on MBS' has gotten both men into trouble, it's also what put them in power. But Trump’s rush to look past Khashoggi’s murder paradoxically has made any cover-up harder for other Americans to swallow or the administration to pull off — as evidenced by Treasury Secretary Mnuchin’s last-minute decision not to attend a financial conference in Riyadh. The foundation of the bilateral relationship has doubtless gotten shakier.

Robert Malley is president and CEO of the International Crisis Group.

Go deeper

Updated 10 mins ago - Politics & Policy

Coronavirus dashboard

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

  1. Global: Total confirmed cases as of 5:30 p.m. ET: 33,484,120 — Total deaths: 1,004,082 — Total recoveries: 23,212,633Map.
  2. U.S.: Total confirmed cases as of 5:30 p.m. ET: 7,180,179 — Total deaths: 205,729 — Total recoveries: 2,794,608 — Total tests: 102,342,416Map.
  3. Health: Americans won't take Trump's word on the vaccine, Axios-Ipsos poll finds.
  4. States: NYC's coronavirus positivity rate spikes to highest since June.
  5. Sports: Tennessee Titans close facility amid NFL's first coronavirus outbreak.
  6. World: U.K. beats previous record for new coronavirus cases.
  7. Work: United States of burnout — Asian American unemployment spikes amid pandemic

What to watch in tonight's debate

Joe Biden (left) and President Trump (right) are facing off in Cleveland for the first presidential debate. Photos: Alex Wong (of Biden) and David Hume Kennerly (of Trump)/Getty Images

President Trump will try to break Joe Biden's composure by going after his son Hunter and other family members in tonight's first presidential debate — a campaign source tells Axios "nothing will be off the table" — while Biden plans to stick to the economy, coronavirus and new revelations about how Trump avoided paying taxes.

Driving the news: Biden and Trump are set to debate at 9 p.m. ET at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, and it will be moderated by Fox News' Chris Wallace.

Massive layoffs hit Disney theme parks

A person posing for a photo in front of the iconic Disney castle at Disneyland Resort in Hong Kong on Sept, 25. Photo: Miguel Candela Poblacion/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Disney is laying off 28,000 workers at its theme parks and experiences and consumer products divisions, the company said in a statement Tuesday.

Why it matters: The coronavirus pandemic has forced the company to close its California theme parks and limit attendance at re-opened parks elsewhere around the U.S. Around 67% of the 28,000 laid off workers are part-time employees, according to Josh D’Amaro, chairman of Disney's parks, experiences and products division.

Get Axios AM in your inbox

Catch up on coronavirus stories and special reports, curated by Mike Allen everyday

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!