Michael A. Cohen

Congress steps up to challenge Trump’s embrace of Saudi Arabia

An official looks out from inside Saudi Arabia’s consulate in Istanbul on Friday.
An official looks out from inside Saudi Arabia’s consulate in Istanbul on Friday.Yasin Akgul/AFP/Getty Images/AFP/Getty Images

On Thursday morning, the news media were obsessed with a confused man spouting incoherent words inside the Oval Office . . . and I’m not talking about Donald Trump.

Instead, it was musician Kanye West, who has fashioned himself as one of the most prominent, if slightly unhinged, black supporters of the president.

But there were plenty of other troubling statements coming out of the Oval Office on Thursday that had nothing to do with Kanye.

Trump was asked about disappearance of journalist and Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi, who intelligence officials believe was murdered by Saudi officials inside the country’s consulate in Turkey. His answer offered a terrifying glimpse into his blighted worldview.


“What good does that do us?” Trump said, when questioned about whether he’d consider canceling arms sales and military support for the Saudi regime in protest of the killing.

“I would not be in favor of stopping a country from spending $110 billion — which is an all-time record — and letting Russia have that money and letting China have that money,” the president said.

Trump was referring to an arms sale he claims to have brokered with the Saudis during a state visit in early 2017. To be clear, the $110 billion is not a world record and it’s not even a real number — it refers to a wish list of arms sales, many of which are likely never to occur.

That the president is openly lying is not surprising. That he appears to have no real concern for human rights, the rule of law, or international norms follows a familiar and depressing pattern. Still, it is astounding to hear a US president so openly subsume those longstanding national concerns beneath the grubby veneer of US commercial interests.


Moreover, Khashoggi was not just a critic of the increasingly repressive rule of Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (or MBS as he’s otherwise known), he is also a legal resident of the United States. If he was killed by the Saudi regime (and it increasingly looks that way), it sends a disturbing message about how the White House’s backsliding on human rights and democracy is being perceived around the world.

It’s also a depressing reminder that cultivating a close personal relationship with Trump is seen by authoritarian leaders as a pathway to impunity on human rights violations.

Just last month, Secretary of State Pompeo certified that Saudi Arabia is minimizing the impact on civilians of its war in Yemen, thus justifying continued US military support for the Saudis. No one following the war closely agrees with Pompeo. In fact, Yemen is arguably host to the worst humanitarian crisis in the world today. In addition, the administration, eager to enlist Riyadh’s help in dealing with Iran or building support for an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal, has largely looked the other way at the regime’s growing efforts to stifle dissent at home.

Yet if there is one silver lining to this situation, it is that the reaction on Capitol Hill to the Khashoggi incident suggests that the Saudis may have — this time — gone too far. Earlier this week 22 senators, Democrats and Republicans, signed a letter to the president, triggering an investigation of the incident and opening the door for possible sanctions against Saudi Arabia.


This reflects real anger on Capitol Hill, which as one senior Senate staffer said to me, has been building for a while. “The Khashoggi murder just seems to crystallize the recklessness and brutality of MBS’s rule, and it’s pushing many members to consider options that they might not have before,” the staffer said.

That reconsideration may be seeping into the private sector. Firms are practically falling over themselves to exit a major investment conference in Riyadh, scheduled for later this month (though Treasury Secretary Steven Mnunchin still plans to attend).

As Steven Cook, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations said to me, “The unpredictability of the Saudi leadership, the impulsiveness and the inability to think through the consequences of their actions, are heightening concerns” in financial markets about the crown prince and his rule.

Whether those concerns continue and whether Congress maintains its frustration toward the Saudis is something else altogether.

But it couldn’t be more vital for them do so. The Saudi leadership seems to be blithely unconcerned about the potential international response to Khashoggi’s murder. If such audacious violations of human rights norms go unchallenged, it will only further embolden other regimes intent on nefarious acts.

We know the president is not going to be a voice of moral leadership on the global stage. He seems more intent on currying favor with strongman and authoritarian leaders than on being an advocate and defender of their political victims. If Congress isn’t going to speak up, who will?


Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.