From Kavanaugh to Khashoggi: The Politics at Play - OZY | A Modern Media Company

From Kavanaugh to Khashoggi: The Politics at Play

From Kavanaugh to Khashoggi: The Politics at Play

By Daniel Malloy and Sean Culligan


Because this is a foreign relations crisis first, and a domestic political one second.

By Daniel Malloy and Sean Culligan

If Brett Kavanaugh brought Republicans together, Jamal Khashoggi is pulling them apart. The apparent murder of the journalist and U.S. resident in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul has become the biggest story in the world — threatening to upend a long-standing alliance between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia.

The diplomatic crisis also threatens to undermine the political momentum Donald Trump and Republicans were enjoying in the wake of the Kavanaugh confirmation fight. Even Trump-skeptical Republicans were eager to install a true conservative — with close ties to the George W. Bush wing of the party — on the Supreme Court for decades. As Democrats and liberal groups pushed charges of sexual assault, many Republicans saw overreach and vowed to battle back at the ballot box.

But the Khashoggi case reminds Trump’s softer supporters of the president’s shortcomings, particularly when it comes to a traditional conservative worldview. It’s all here: Trump’s disregard for human rights violations, his appreciation of autocrats, his deployment of son-in-law Jared Kushner (aka Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s WhatsApp buddy) in a key policy post and his endless conflicts of interest as he reaps millions of dollars from Saudi stays at Trump hotels.

Trump appears ready to let the Saudis explain away the Washington Post columnist’s murder as unconnected to MBS.

It leaves Trump’s congressional allies in a bind. Pro-Trump Sen. Lindsey Graham, the conservative hero of the Kavanaugh hearings, called MBS a “wrecking ball” on Fox News. “He had this guy murdered in a consulate in Turkey, and to expect me to ignore it? I feel used and abused,” Graham added. Meanwhile Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., mirrored the Trump line to his hometown newspaper: “We ought not jump to conclusions.”  

What about Republican candidates in the toughest Senate races? “If any arm of the Saudi government was involved in his death? Man, I mean, there should be hell to pay,” said Arizona Rep. Martha McSally in a newspaper editorial board meeting. At a debate, Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley said, “All options do need to be on the table, and the actions need to be severe” if the murder is connected to the Saudi government. These comments all came before the Saudis’ explanation late Friday that Khashoggi was strangled during a fistfight, tacitly acknowledging they had lied about him leaving the consulate while not explaining what happened to his body. The kingdom fired five top officials — including the deputy intelligence chief — and arrested 18 more.


Trump, who said this was “a good first step,” appears ready to let the Saudis explain away the Washington Post columnist’s murder as unconnected to MBS — despite mounting evidence that it is. The president would rather continue negotiating arms sales, which Trump absurdly claims will create 600,000 jobs, and supporting Saudi Arabia’s disastrous war in Yemen. Meanwhile, pro-Trump commentators are trying to tie Khashoggi to terrorists because of his support for the Muslim Brotherhood in his younger days — his own writings in the Washington Post and elsewhere illustrate his embrace of secular values — a new twist on the “he was no angel” reportage often found when a Black man is gunned down by police.

A murder mystery with geopolitical implications that involves a member of the press is irresistible for the media, and is likely to remain so as we hurtle toward the midterm elections with voting already underway in many states. Trump had been enjoying an uptick in popularity of late, rising to 44 percent in Gallup’s weekly tracking poll — close to the highest numbers he’s enjoyed in his presidency. That’s under threat now.

The solution? Wave a shiny distraction to get people talking about an issue that revs up his base. By week’s end, Trump was railing against a “caravan” of migrants heading to the U.S. border, and proposing to send the military in to stop them. 

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