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In Trump's world, there are friends with benefits - of the doubt

President Donald Trump speaks before boarding Marine One

President Donald Trump speaks before boarding Marine One at the White House on Monday to head to Florida after Hurricane Michael devastated the state. Credit: AFP / Getty Images / Mandel Ngan

Innocents abroad in the House of Saud

When Donald Trump's good friends among the world's more unsavory leaders do bad things, his first move seems to be to look away. If that doesn't work, there's Plan B: Try floating an alibi for his ally.

The president reported back to reporters Monday morning on his phone call with Saudi Arabia's King Salman concerning the presumed killing by Saudi agents of Jamal Khashoggi, The Washington Post contributor who entered the oil kingdom's consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2 and never came out.

"His denial to me could not have been stronger," Trump said. Those words closely matched Trump's reaction to Vladimir Putin's insistence that Russia was innocent of interference in the 2016 election.  

Trump also emphasized that the king referred to Khashoggi, who has been living in Virginia, as "our Saudi Arabian citizen" — signaling a lesser interest in his fate than for a U.S. citizen. "It sounded to me like maybe these could have been rogue killers," Trump said. "I mean, who knows?"

Hours later, CNN and The Wall Street Journal reported that the Saudis — after 13 days of saying Khashoggi left the building unharmed, only to mysteriously vanish — were considering releasing a new story: that Khashoggi's death was the result of an unauthorized plan to interrogate and kidnap him that went wrong.

The resulting diplomatic crisis has Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visiting Riyadh Tuesday to meet with top Saudis. 

Trump didn't immediately weigh in on whether he would buy that, saying "nobody knows" if that's now the official story. Others were quicker to render a verdict and held Saudi Arabia's crown prince responsible.

"The notion that Mohammed bin Salman, one of the most controlling leaders in the Middle East, didn’t know that his government was sending 15 goons to Turkey to abduct a Saudi critic is absurd," tweeted former UN Ambassador Samantha Power. For more, see Candice Ferrette's story for Newsday.

Slack cut thick

In his "60 Minutes" interview Sunday, Trump's not-my-problem reflex extended to how Putin and Kim Jong Un deal with their enemies, sometimes outside their borders.

Asked if he agreed that Putin is involved in assassinations and poisonings, Trump said, "Probably he is," but "it's not in our country." It's true that the most notorious recent attack — targeting an ex-Russian agent and his daughter — occurred in Britain, a top U.S. ally.

Trump doesn't deny the brutal record of North Korea's Kim Jong Un — he used to denounce it in explicit detail, before the thaw in relations. "I'm not a baby. I know these things," Trump said.

But why embrace him now? "Let it be whatever it is to get the job done," Trump said.

Janison: Separation anxiety

The policy adopted last spring to separate parents from children illegally crossing the Mexican border didn't go well for anyone. Certainly not for the families. Not for the Trump administration, either, which retreated after a bipartisan outcry over inhumane treatment made worse by bureaucratic bungling.

Yet Trump is openly toying with trying it again — possibly to offset any impression among his fans voting on Nov. 6 in the midterm congressional races that he's failing or softening. See Dan Janison's column for Newsday.

Warren: My DNA, your IOU

One of Trump's regular crowd-pleasers at rallies has been to taunt Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) as "Pocahontas," picking up on attacks made previously by Massachusetts Republicans that she got favorable treatment during her academic career with dubious claims of having American Indian ancestry. Trump even said he'd give $1 million to her favorite charity if she could prove it.

So Warren, who has denied ever taking such advantage, released results of a DNA analysis on Monday that concluded she is a teensy bit American Indian — somewhere between 1/64th and 1/1,024th. She called on Trump to send a check to the National Indigenous Women's Resource Center.

When first asked to respond, Trump denied ever making such an offer. (He did — it's on video.) Later, he said he would pay up "only ... if I can test her personally." He added, "That will not be something I enjoy doing, either." (Video clip here.) Warren called that a "creepy" physical threat.

Red wave of ink

The federal budget deficit surged to $779 billion in fiscal 2018, its highest level in six years, as the tax-cut package enacted last year by Trump and congressional Republicans caused the government to borrow more heavily to cover spending.

Debt will likely worsen in the coming years, with the Trump administration expecting the deficit to top $1 trillion in 2019, nearly matching the $1.1 trillion imbalance from 2012, The Associated Press reported. 

What else is happening:

  • A federal judge dismissed porn actress Stormy Daniels' defamation lawsuit against Trump and ordered her to pay the president's legal fees. Daniels' lawsuit over the hush-money deal that arose from her story about a sex fling with Trump is still pending.
  • The president deemed it worthy to react on his official Twitter account by saying of Daniels: "Now I can go after Horseface and her 3rd rate lawyer in the Great State of Texas. She will confirm the letter she signed! She knows nothing about me, a total con!"
  • In a sharp about-face, Trump now favors a major expansion of foreign aid as a tool to counter China's growing influence around the globe. He signed a bill to back $60 billion in financing for infrastructure projects in Africa, Asia and the Americas, The New York Times reported.
  • Pennsylvania went for Trump in 2016, but Democrats look to be surging as the midterm elections approach, and could pick up as many as six House seats, Politico reports. The big issue hurting Republicans? Health care.
  • Trump lamented the bankruptcy filing by Sears, saying the giant retailer has "been obviously improperly run for many years and it’s a shame.” Trump's Treasury secretary, Steven Mnuchin, served on Sears’ board from 2005 until December 2016.
  • The president and first lady Melania Trump surveyed the devastation in Florida and Georgia from Hurricane Michael. Trump bantered with a crowd that seemed more interested in selfies with him than in the bottled water he was offering in the heat and humidity.

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