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Long IslandColumnistsDan Janison

Why Trump critics in America are so fixated on a vanished Saudi dissident

Foes and critics of the Trump administration are playing up the drama surrounding the likely death of Saudi Arabian dissident Jamal Khashoggi as grounds to criticize the president.

Their motives vary.

First there are the Democrats. Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman plays the reformer opening up Saudi society — but then added that "reformers don't kill their opponents." 

Trump has equivocated on the Saudi government's possible role. 

Democrats also criticized past GOP administrations as favoring the kingdom. President George W. Bush's ties there and those of his extended family drew scattered criticism. President Ronald Reagan's sale of air surveillance equipment to the Saudis drew fire from pro-Israel lawmakers — though Democrats were of course less skeptical when President Barack Obama approved selling weapons to Saudi Arabia.

Does the current dust-up change midterm votes? Probably not.

Congressional Republicans got a chance to project toughness by distancing themselves from Trump's sluggishness in acknowledging a link between the case and the monarchy. 

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said the U.S. can't continue "business as usual" with Saudi Arabia if it's to blame and should explore "every option" for how to respond.

For others, the fact that Khashoggi was affiliated with The Washington Post and writing columns for the newspaper calls further attention to Trump's repeated Stalinist-style description of news media as "enemies of the people." 

Trump's earliest remarks on Khashoggi vanishing after entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul echoed the passive tone of his verbal reactions to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Trump's claim that "rogue killers" might be at fault in Istanbul resembled his fantasized "a 400-pound guy" on a bed in New Jersey hacking Democratic emails. Alternative theories of a crime are more typically left to defense attorneys.

In both cases the president conveyed and emphasized the denials of his fellow national leaders rather than challenge them. Human-rights advocates who dislike Trump's dismissal of their concerns in setting foreign policy also get to complain.

Fact checkers see some raw material in the issue as well. Trump said he wouldn't want a $110 billion arms deal he brokered with the Saudis to unravel over the apparent killing. So far, in fact, only $14.5 billion in purchases have been completed.

And with strains showing over the case among the U.S., Turkey and Saudi Arabia, professional diplomats use the occasion to point out that Trump still has no ambassadors in Ankara or Riyadh nearly two years into office.

In Qatar, the media group Qatar Press Center expressed concern, saying it is “following with great concern the developments regarding the suspicious disappearance of the colleague Khashoggi."

Qatar is, of course, a bitter rival of the Saudis these days, and some Saudi partisans have sought to cast blame for the whole scandal on Quatari propaganda.

Skeptics of Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner's power within the administration have pointed out that he, more than anyone, has sought out the crown prince as an ally.

Diplomatic tensions now dent that relationship.


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