FILE - In this May 20, 2017, file photo, President Donald Trump shakes hands with Saudi Deputy Crown Prince and Defense Minister Mohammed bin Salman in...
Evan Vucci

Trump’s credulity toward Saudi Arabia becomes a much bigger problem

Updated

For weeks, Saudi Arabian officials suggested that U.S.-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi had left the Saudi consulate in Turkey on his own. Late Friday, the official story changed dramatically.

According to the Saudis’ new version of events, Khashoggi entered the consulate in Istanbul, where the 60-year-old journalist proceeded to have a physical altercation with 15 men. The “quarrel” – the noun used in the official Saudi Arabian statement – left Khashoggi dead.

By any fair measure, the new version of events is literally unbelievable to nearly everyone – except Donald Trump.

Trump was asked Friday at an event in Arizona whether he found the Saudi explanation credible and he responded, “I do,” but said, “It’s early. We haven’t finished our review or investigation.”

The American president went on to call the Saudi statement “a good first step.”

A day later, however, Trump criticized Saudi Arabia’s explanation for Khashoggi death, telling the Washington Post that “obviously there’s been deception, and there’s been lies.”

Why Trump considered the Saudis’ version of events credible on Friday, only to criticize the Saudis’ “lies” and “deception” on Saturday, is unclear.

What’s more, the American president again finds himself at odds with U.S. intelligence agencies – Trump has an unfortunate habit of believing claims from foreign authoritarian regimes over American intelligence professionals – and many congressional Republicans.

It’s against this backdrop that Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) said on ABC News’ “This Week” yesterday that U.S. lawmakers “have to determine whether financial motives are motivating the president and the first family. This is the very problem with the president not releasing his tax returns. It leaves the American people wondering. Is the U.S. Saudi policy being driven by something other than national interest?”

Host George Stephanopoulos then asked Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) whether Trump should “release all information related to his financial ties to the Saudi kingdom?” The New York Republican’s answer was kind of amazing:

“Well, first of all, I think it’s wrong to inject partisanship in this right now. Nobody was more supportive of the Saudis than President Obama. The large arms deals under President Obama. He fought us tooth and nail, attacked the Congress when we allowed 9/11 families to sue the Saudis. He went out of his way to shield the Saudis. To be making these type of allegations against the president – if you want to do it three or four months from now, do it.

“But the fact is right now the president is in a very delicate diplomatic spot, the same as President Obama was. And I think at least for this, let’s have a certain time out when it comes to making the partisan shots. Let’s deal with it on the merits. What Saudi Arabia did was savage, was evil, to be condemned, but let’s not be questioning the motives of our president right now. He should be the president of all the people at this moment. When the dust settles, their people can make the allegations they want.”

It’s worth emphasizing that King’s description of U.S. policy toward Saudi Arabia in the Obama era is, if we’re being charitable, incomplete. As Obama administration officials have been quick to note, there was a real chill between the White House and Riyadh, especially in the Democratic president’s second term, and Saudi officials made no secret of their hostility toward the international nuclear agreement with Iran.

But even putting that aside, according to Peter King, as the international controversy over Khashoggi’s slaying continues to unfold, and the American president continues to make decisions and announcements that don’t appear to make a lot of sense, skeptics of the White House can ask questions about Trump’s financial ties to Saudi Arabia – but those questions should wait “three of four months.”

It’s a tough argument to take seriously. If Trump is dissembling now about his financial interests in Saudi Arabia, why wait to explore this angle in more detail?

King argued that we shouldn’t “be questioning the motives of our president right now.” Given Trump’s problematic postures, contradictions, and dubious claims, isn’t now the ideal time?