We might understandably be surprised to find Mohammed bin Salman and Brett Kavanaugh in the same paragraph. But President Donald Trump managed it last week by suggesting a parallel between the cases of Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi journalist who disappeared on Oct. 2, and Kavanaugh, who was recently elevated to the Supreme Court.
“Here we go again with, you know, you’re guilty until proven innocent,” Trump said, “I don’t like that. We just went through that with Justice Kavanaugh and he was innocent all the way as far as I’m concerned.”
The “you’re” in this paragraph refers to M.B.S., the 33-year-old crown prince and likely future king of Saudi Arabia, who appears to be deeply implicated in the death of Khashoggi. Trump’s eagerness to apply to M.B.S. this essential principle of American jurisprudence - the accused is innocent until proven guilty - is noteworthy for two reasons.
First, this principle plays no part in Saudi jurisprudence; M.B.S. certainly didn’t use it when he detained and extorted more than 200 Saudis at the Riyadh Ritz-Carlton. And, second, while Trump was being coy about an American investigation of the disappearance, he was quick to point out and emphasize that Khashoggi was not an American citizen. Same as M.B.S.
So the parallel imagined by Trump between the cases of Khashoggi and Kavanaugh is a stretch, but since he’s brought it up, other parallels come to mind. The Saudi “investigation” into Khashoggi’s disappearance seems to have a prior goal, the exoneration of M.B.S. The F.B.I. investigation of Christine Ford’s allegations against Kavanaugh has the same quick and dirty feel - the two principals in the case, as well as many others, weren’t even interviewed.
And in both cases Trump has been quick to embrace alternative, exonerating explanations. Certainly something happened to Khashoggi, but it could have been the work of “rogue” killers. Indeed, someone attacked Christine Ford, it just wasn’t Kavanaugh. Cases closed, in Trump’s mind.
And here’s one more parallel: Despite the evidence it’s hard not to suspect that for Kavanaugh the fix was in from the beginning and that we can expect to the same with Khashoggi.
In other words, moral and ethical principles, ideals and facts don’t stand much of a chance in the face of the demands and power and money.
You don’t have to be much of a cynic to suspect that, despite the credible accusations against Kavanaugh, despite his highly questionable testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee and despite his petulance, partisanship and injudicious temperament, in the end sheer Republican power would make his confirmation inevitable. Indeed, it did.
The case of Jamal Khashoggi is taking a similar tack. One gets the feeling that our president is less concerned with justice than with the goal of helping everyone - especially himself - out of a terribly awkward situation without disturbing the useful and profitable dynamics of power and money that are already in place.
This is particularly unfortunate because the Khashoggi episode has a kind of simple moral clarity that is often missing from other atrocities that we confront. We rationalize the collateral damage from bombing and missile strikes - the cruel deaths of innocent women and children, for example - by imagining that they serve some greater good, such as winning World War II, defeating ISIS or somehow saving more lives in the future.
But the murder and dismemberment of Khashoggi are as stark a moral case as we are ever likely to encounter. He was a thinker and writer who managed to threaten the repressive regime in Saudi Arabia. The most likely explanation for his disappearance is that he was murdered and dismembered by Saudi agents under the direction and control of Mohammed bin Salman. But don’t look for Trump to push for consequences for M.B.S.
Trump and M.B.S. are both con men, and no one can con a con man like another con man. M.B.S. knows what Trump wants and needs - an alibi - and he’s willing to supply it. And Trump is eager to accept it.
John M. Crisp, an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service, lives in Georgetown, Texas, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.