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

By all current evidence, Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was the victim of a brutal extrajudicial killing inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2. His work as a Washington Post columnist shed international light on the repressive government of Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman (MBS) — as, too, did his death.

The big picture: The basis of U.S.–Saudi relations has always been the personal relationship between the Saudi king and U.S. president. The Khashoggi affair has now put this foundation at stake: Trump and MBS face the worst crisis of confidence in the U.S.–Saudi relationship since the 9/11 terrorist attacks involving 15 Saudi nationals.

The background: Khashoggi was a highly respected journalist, editor, commentator and onetime advisor to the former Saudi ambassador to London and Washington, Prince Turki al-Faisal. He was a prominent member of the kingdom’s non-royal elite, never a revolutionary or monarchy-hater. He even welcomed, albeit with a critical eye, the daring social reforms MBS has launched and his crackdown on the kingdom’s ultra-conservative Wahhabi clerics opposing them.

Even President Trump, MBS’ most important foreign supporter, finally had to respond to the grisly details of Khashoggi’s murder, dispatching Secretary of State Pompeo to Riyadh on what will probably turn out to be a mission impossible. King Salman and his son, MBS, have so far heatedly denied any knowledge of the incident, despite failing to provide any evidence to the contrary. They may be shifting to a fallback position of a interrogation operation gone wrong.

What’s next: Both Trump and MBS will doubtless look for a way to finesse the truth to preserve a working relationship. After all, they need each other badly to contain Iran, their common nemesis. The Saudis may resort to blaming rogue elements and promise punishment, and Trump may accept this implausible explanation.

Yes, but: The Khashoggi affair seems likely to permanently sour Trump’s enthusiasm and trust in the king and his son. While the storm might eventually subside, it augurs poorly for the future of the U.S.–Saudi relationship.

David Ottaway is a fellow in the Middle East Program at the Wilson Center.

Go deeper

Biden will reverse Trump's attempt to lift COVID related travel restrictions

Photo: Tasos Katopodis via Getty

The incoming Biden administration will reverse President Trump's last-minute order to lift COVID-19 related travel restrictions, Jen Psaki, the incoming White House press secretary, tweeted.

Why it matters: President Trump ordered entry bans lifted for travelers from the U.K., Ireland, Brazil and much of Europe to go into effect Jan. 26, but the Biden administration will "strengthen public health measures around international travel in order to further mitigate the spread of COVID-19," Jen Psaki said. Biden will be inaugurated on Wednesday, Jan. 20 and Trump will no longer be president by the time the order is set to go into effect.

Dominion sends cease and desist letter to My Pillow CEO Mike Lindell

Photo: Stephen Maturen/Getty Images

Dominion Voting Systems on Monday sent a cease and desist letter to My Pillow CEO Mike Lindell over his spread of misinformation related to the 2020 election.

Why it matters: Trump and several of his allies have pushed false conspiracy theories about the company, leading Dominion to take legal action. It's suing pro-Trump lawyer Sidney Powell for defamation and $1.3 billion in damages, and a Dominion employee has sued Trump himself, OANN and Newsmax.

Off the Rails

Episode 5: The secret CIA plan

Photo illustration: Aïda Amer, Sarah Grillo/Axios. Photo: Zach Gibson/Getty Images

Beginning on election night 2020 and continuing through his final days in office, Donald Trump unraveled and dragged America with him, to the point that his followers sacked the U.S. Capitol with two weeks left in his term. This Axios series takes you inside the collapse of a president.

Episode 5: Trump vs. Gina — The president becomes increasingly rash and devises a plan to tamper with the nation's intelligence command.

In his final weeks in office, after losing the election to Joe Biden, President Donald Trump embarked on a vengeful exit strategy that included a hasty and ill-thought-out plan to jam up CIA Director Gina Haspel by firing her top deputy and replacing him with a protege of Republican Congressman Devin Nunes.