In these times of repeated impact trauma to our sense of national dignity, it is important to make every effort to look for those scant slivers of good news, and to try to find a morsel of optimism in even the most disgraceful news stories. All we can come up with for this week, unfortunately, is this: In Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, there is actually a government acting dumber, more loathsome, and more morally bankrupt than the United States under Donald Trump.
They often say that the cover-up is worse than the crime, but this one is a close call. What if you are doing an absolutely disgraceful and utterly deceitful job of attempting to cover up one of the more heinous, gruesome crimes of the still-young century?
When the news of the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi first broke, the initial reaction was shock. Sure, people were appalled at the barbarian nature of the murder itself, but there was perhaps even more wide-eyed amazement at the brazen transparency of the perpetrators. The writers of Law and Order do a better job of sustaining uncertainty about the identity of the villain... it usually took Lennie Briscoe at least 25 minutes before he slapped on the cuffs.
Short of buying ad time on Young Sheldon, how much more effectively could the Saudis have broadcast their culpability for the murder of Khashoggi? Two private jets, fifteen goons, one of them actually equipped with a surgical bone saw, whisked to and from the Saudi embassy in Turkey in the hours preceding and following the crime, and all captured on more video than Kate Upton swimsuit issue outtakes. Khashoggi is filmed walking into the embassy but not out. Did they believe that if would take at least a day or so before people notice Khashoggi was missing, so they would have time to clean up and make their escape? Uh, unlikely: Khashoggi’s fiancé was waiting for him outside the embassy. C’mon, Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, we haven’t seen this much transparent, undisguised criminal Istanbullshit since Don Junior pretended he was meeting with Russians about adoptions.
And while we are pondering the unknowable, can anyone explain why the Saudis needed fifteen thugs flown in from Riyadh to take down a guy who looked about as physically imposing as your average actor on a Prilosec commercial? Geez, Prince, next time spring a few of those petro dollars and hire the guy who wrote the screenplay for that awful Bond flick with Pierce Brosnan. At least you’d get a more believable plot and you’d only need one guy who is actually licensed to kill.
The merely bizarre transitioned into the surreal when we began getting daily updates with inside scoops about the various explanations the Saudis were inventing to try to explain what had happened and how it happened, all going to enormous lengths to create the impression that the Crown Prince was not involved. The Prince, who projects tech savvy, hipness, and a self-conscious sleek modernity with his three letter branding – MBS – may have suffered a bit of a relapse into generations of ruthless totalitarian control, which is considerably off-brand for the self-professed Chic Sheik. Insulating the Crown Prince became the order of the day for the Saudi Department of Fabrication, as the world was treated to a variety of implausible explanations that rose and fell like lead trial balloons in a sandstorm of deceit. Hey, Saudis! We can hear you whispering! We can hear you asking whether this or that scenario will make people believe that MBS did not order this humanitarian atrocity!
The problem is that just about everybody covering this story finds it beyond implausible that this mob hit took place without the knowledge or overt direction of the man on top. Some of the members of the assassination squad were members of MBS’s personal security detail. One was described by The New York Times as a “close companion” of MBS. It appears unfathomable that the Crown Prince was completely unaware of the planned action against Khashoggi.
Here’s the best part: the Saudis settled on the stupidest explanation of all.
In the newly minted, most current Saudi explanation, we are to believe that a suddenly wildly volatile Mr. Khashoggi swaggered into the Saudi Embassy packing an iPad, some mean looking wedding documents, and looking to all the Saudi world like the most physically threatening sexagenarian librarian that you ever did Black Sea. Triggering fisticuffs, Khashoggi apparently intimidated the crap out of the fifteen assassins who had flown that morning from Riyadh to greet him warmly at the Embassy. One can only imagine the intrepid daring and sterling courage it took for that rugby team of hit men to overcome the sixty year old. And it is easy to understand how in the intensity and heat of such a titanic struggle, the only way to ensure the end to the horrific threat posed by Mr. Khashoggi was to, uh, kill him. Of course.
Yeah, that’s it!, the Saudis gushed. Forget what we said last week, we are now releasing Crown Prince Version 2.0, which has been upgraded to eliminate all of the bugs and overt lies from our first release! Version 2.0 has better, improved lies!
Meanwhile, back in the temporarily second stupidest government in the world, President Donald Trump’s initial reaction to the horrific news was to become an active and indeed enthusiastic participant in the MSBullshit machine. Trump pondered whether the problem was really “rogue” perpetrators, who, we are left to infer, somehow wandered unchallenged into the Saudi Embassy in Istanbul, murdered Khashoggi, and then left without even having the diplomatic politesse to record their departure in the official embassy sign-out sheet.
Trump then tried to weave together two deeply troubling narratives, noting that “here we go again with, you know, you're guilty until proven innocent,” apparently inviting us to explore parallels between Mohammed Bin Salman’s slaughter of a journalist and the allegations against Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. O.k., re-opening the Kavanaugh issue in relation to a gruesome murder seems like a bad idea for about twenty three reasons, but let's go with him on this. Trump was actually correct to see a direct parallel: in both cases, the ruling powers-that-be tried to smother dissenting views and suppress evidence in order to reach a premature conclusion of innocence all for the purpose of sparing the boss humiliation. But somehow we doubt that Trump was actually intending to make that particular point.
As the initial sham Saudi story evaporated and began to morph, Trump revised his position, urging that the Saudis should be given the time they need to do a proper investigation. Hey, let's go back to those Supreme Court parallels, shall we? This is exactly the opposite of the position Trump and McConnell took with the FBI investigation into the charges against Brett Kavanaugh.
There is one last stunning fact in all of this: the Turkish government claims that it has evidence in the form of audio recordings that completely substantiate the accusations that they have made about what really happened in the Saudi embassy. Really? You must admit: the Turks seem rather breezy about the implicit admission that they routinely plant listening devices in the foreign embassies in Istanbul. But if the Turks have such evidence, why aren’t they sharing it? That audio recording could prove that the Saudis are lying even in the brand new, comprehensively revised explanation Crown Prince Version 2.0. The audio tape might finally make it clear to Trump that the Saudis are demanding that the United States stand by the Crown Prince, even as he brazenly deceives the United States. Doesn’t the incredibly thin-skinned Trump realize how he is being played and dissed by MBS?
And so the barbarian murder of a journalist appears to being slow-walked by both Riyadh and the President of the United States. Trump probably hopes that the “investigation” will carry past the mid-terms, so that he does not have to make any more public statements that force him to choose between some semblance of principle and his supposed goal of preserving a mega-billion arms deal with the Saudis.
But is that really why Trump is so intent on avoiding a confrontation with Riyadh? To preserve an arms deal? Maybe… but there are other possible explanations as well.
Trump has repeatedly spoken of the many business deals he did with Saudi Arabia while in the private sector. Since Trump refuses to release his taxes, we have no way of knowing whether those many business deals were tinged with all the same issues -- money laundering, tax fraud -- that are being raised about Trump’s dealing with Russia. We just do not know. But it’s pretty fair bet that if they is any whiff of wrongdoing, MBS sure knows, and he knows exactly how to weaponize that information against Trump.
Moreover, we are reminded of the reporting a few months back of a “second” meeting between the Trump campaign and a representative who claimed to be offering the assistance of another foreign government to help Donald Trump win the Presidential election of 2016. This, a quote from The New York Times of May 19, 2018:
“Erik Prince, the private security contractor and the former head of Blackwater, arranged the meeting, which took place on Aug. 3, 2016. The emissary, George Nader, told Donald Trump Jr. that the princes who led Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates were eager to help his father win election as president.”
Yes, there was a second meeting taken by the Trump campaign to listen to a representative of a foreign country that sought to help Trump – an offer that is inherently illegal, as no campaign can accept financial contributions or value “in kind” from foreign governments.
Which brings us to yet another possible explanation: is Donald Trump pimping for the Saudi Crown Prince because he is yet a second totalitarian leader who has “compromat” on Donald Trump?
Calling a nation on the horrific public slaughter of a journalist ought to be about the easiest moral stance for a U.S. President to take. And challenging an alleged ally to come completely clean with us as a condition of our ongoing support is about as basic a negotiating stand as we can imagine.
And yet our President – once again, just as with Putin – is vacillating, equivocating, and cutting slack to disgusting villains while pretending to be a tough talker.
But c'mon now, hasn't Donald Trump proven that he is not afraid to stick it to our allies when he thinks there is a real principle at stake? Remember when he went toe-to-toe with Justin Trudeau about Canada’s egregious, shameful inequities in the import and export markets for dairy products? Trump showed the world just how lactose intolerant the leader of the free world can be. And our dispute with Canada was pretty much identical to the Saudi’s action against Khosaggi, except, of course, for the fact that Canada’s milk deal did not involve a brutal murder and dismemberment of a dissident journalist. It was just so much crying over how to split milk.
This President is unable, unwilling, or frightened to bring the pressure of moral righteousness to bear on the Saudi Prince for this repulsive murder.
Unable, perhaps, because weighing decisions and acting on the basis of moral and ethical imperatives is not part of the philosophy that guides Donald Trump’s existence. If you lead an amoral life, you never learn how to use a moral compass to guide your actions.
Unwilling, perhaps, because in the purely transactional universe where Donald Trump lives, he literally does not see the value of raising a ruckus over one dead journalist when billions of dollars and his personal reputation are at stake, and when we have painted ourselves into a corner of the Middle East that leaves us absolutely no option but to cling to our relationship with Riyadh.
Frightened, perhaps, because Donald Trump has conducted a great deal of personal business with the Saudis, and may even be exposed to violations of campaign finance laws with a second sovereign government. Because we have no access to Donald Trump’s taxes, we have no way of knowing the degree to which he is vulnerable to the pressure of exposure from the Saudis.
All we have is a President who talks tough to allies about milk but cowers when the subject is murder.
But, of course, just imagine if Donald Trump actually did try to publicly shame MBS about the absurd, transparent lies that Saudi Arabia has tried to peddle about this murder. Yes, imagine Donald Trump, behind the official seal of the President of the United States, lecturing another head of state about the immorality of flagrant, unapologetic, relentless lying.
The prediction on this one is easy.
Whenever Donald Trump creates a shit storm, he solves it by waiting for a newer, bigger shit storm to divert everyone’s attention. If no such catastrophe conveniently occurs, he'll invent one.
In this case, Trump’s call for an “investigation” is just a way to buy time until the news cycle does its magic.
Funny how when the topic was a vulnerable woman making allegations of sexually predatory behavior by a man who was important to Trump, Trump demanded that corroborating evidence be produced in less than a week.
But now – with the existence of corroborating evidence alleged by the Turkish government – Donald Trump is washing his hands and telling the Saudis to take their sweet time.
Maybe until after the midterms.
Maybe until the next big turd explosion in Washington washes Jamal Khashoggi and MBS out to the cable news cycle, gone forever.
Donald Trump and Mohammed Bin Salman are in this together, each dancing with the person that brought them to the party.
Neither of them seem capable – or interested -- in seeing an issue through a moral or ethical lens. Each appears eager to come up with a palatable reason why the world should just move on.
Neither seems terribly concerned that courageous journalists all around the globe are getting a message: fuck with us and you could end up dismembered, and nobody is going to be held to account. That great nation that has judiciously exercised moral leadership in the world for decades? It is now just going to turn its head and hope the world forgets.
And he we all are, sitting on the side, appalled that our President is pandering to yet another violent totalitarian dictator, and we have no idea why.
Yet there they are, out on the dance floor, dancing Sheik to Sheik.
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