Saudis cause major challenge for Trump in Congress

Published 10.12.2018 00:43
Updated 10.12.2018 08:00

The brutal actions of the Saudi kingdom have put President Trump in a difficult position with Congress, strengthening the Democrats' hand against him

It was a rather difficult week for U.S. President Donald Trump. Domestically, the Mueller investigation and the recent court filings of the Special Counsel on Michael Cohen and Paul Manafort revealed a more complicated picture of the relations between some of the Trump campaign staff with Russia and also generated questions about possible campaign finance law violations. Largely redacted documents raised questions in regards to the direction of the Mueller investigation.

In addition to that, there were rumors of deteriorating relations between President Trump and his chief of staff, John Kelly. On Saturday, Trump announced that Kelly is leaving office by the end of the year. Two chiefs of staff in two years and other movement in high levels of government elevated the perception of increasing instability within the administration.

Meanwhile, Trump's former secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, harshly criticized Trump for being undisciplined, whereas in return Trump tweeted calling him "dumb as rock," something very unusual indeed. Of course, the crisis with China over the arrest of an executive of Huawei escalated and the Russian connections of former Trump associates also put relations with Russia into a tight spot.

In the midst of all of these, relations between Saudi Arabia and the U.S. caused another challenge for the U.S. administration. Last week's closed session in Congress with the director of the CIA and statements by ranking members of Congress about their interpretations revealed that the current state of Saudi-U.S. relations may feel more pressure in the coming days.

Despite various tensions in the last few years, including the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA), the Trump administration's approach to the Middle East and its cozy relations with the royal family made many believe in the emergence of a new type of partnership between the two countries.

However, in the last three months, things started to unravel with the killing and dismemberment of Jamal Khashoggi. Denials from Saudi officials were in a very short period of time contradicted by the investigation by Turkish prosecutors.

From the very early stages in this crisis, Trump tried to defend Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) and emphasized the significance of U.S.-Saudi relations for various reasons, such as the Saudi support against terrorism, Saudi resistance to Iran, Saudi protection of Israel and finally for cheap oil prices. However, other branches of government and different agencies have not been very happy about Trump's attitude.

On the one hand, despite Trump's statements about MBS's non-involvement, intelligence sources leaked to the press their own analysis indicating MBS's involvement in the crime. On the other hand, despite Trump's constant reiteration that the U.S. should not give up its partnership with Saudi Arabia, some members of Congress indicated that the U.S.-Saudi alliance is worth saving, but not at all costs. These divergences from the administration by different agencies raised questions about the policy outcomes on this issue. In the last week, there have been important developments that can influence the partnership between the two countries.

First, following the briefing by the CIA director, most of the senators in the hearing asserted that they believe MBS was directly involved in this crime. For instance, Senator Lindsey Graham called MBS a "wrecking ball" and said he thinks MBS is complicit in the crime. Senator Richard Shelby emphasized, "All evidence points to that, that all this leads back to the crown prince." Senator Bob Corker said that he has no question in his mind that the crown prince is involved in the crime.

The contradiction between the administration's statements about the crime and President Trump's position with the findings of the CIA and statements of the senators demonstrated that there is a lack of agreement in regards to the Khashoggi issue and that this could impede some of the initiatives that the Trump administration was planning to launch with Saudi investment or procurement.

Second, the rapid deterioration of the image of Saudi Arabia among political elites in Washington despite the administration's efforts also revived the issue of Yemen, which has been not on the agenda of many lawmakers for a while. The Senate is preparing a new resolution as a result of which the U.S. needs to "withdraw troops in or ‘affecting' Yemen within 30 days, unless they are fighting al-Qaida."

The new proposed bill aims to end U.S. assistance for the Saudi war efforts in Yemen. The humanitarian disaster in the country and rapid increase in the starvation of kids and epidemics are also among the issues that have started to be more frequently discussed in Congress. This bill can also be a major challenge in relations between Congress and the White House in regards to foreign policy issues.

Third, following reports about the dealings of the Khashoggi crisis in the White House, some questions arose about the relations between Trump's inner circle and royal family members. Most specifically, these reports focus on relations between Jared Kushner and MBS. Trump's insistence in defending MBS already raised eyebrows in Washington. Soon after the reports about the message traffic between MBS and Kushner, a new comprehensive report in the The New York Times revealed that some U.S. officials were not happy with the Kushner-MBS relationship. According to them, due to the inexperience of Kushner, he can become susceptible to manipulations by the Saudis. With the departure of John Kelly, who reportedly has not been on good terms with Kushner, this question will be discussed more frequently.

Under these circumstances, it will be very hard for the administration to conduct its desired foreign policy with the Saudis. Without resolving the Khashoggi mystery, it will be even be challenging for Trump's team to welcome MBS and his associates to the White House. If it is not resolved, we will continue to see the incident as a major source of disruption in bilateral relations that can lead to geopolitical outcomes.

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