For reasons that are still the subject of speculation, Donald Trump has gone out of his way to excuse Saudi Arabia's apparent murder of American journalist Jamal Khashoggi. In an administration in which the president perceives dissent as betrayal, everyone on Team Trump was expected to read from the same script.
And so, when Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo briefed senators last week on Khashoggi's slaying, they reportedly shared a message in line with the president's wishes and declined to blame Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS).
A week later, their testimony has become, to put it mildly, problematic. Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) told MSNBC this morning that yesterday's classified briefing with CIA Director Gina Haspel has left Mattis and Pompeo in an awkward position.
"I think the secretary of Defense and secretary of State are in a bad spot because the president has given this bear hug to MBS and to the entire Saudi regime, so they are bound to carry out his bizarre policy," [Murphy] said. "But at the same time, it's sort of hard to call this a cover-up given the fact that everybody in that briefing last week knew that Pompeo and Mattis were misleading us, knew there was no way this murder happened without the consent and direction of MBS."
The Connecticut Democrat isn't the only one making comments like these. A reporter asked Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) yesterday whether there was a substantive difference between what senators heard last week from Mattis and Pompeo, and what they heard yesterday from the CIA director.
After pausing, the retiring Republican chairman compared it to the difference "between darkness and sunshine."
Even Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a Trump cheerleader, said yesterday that one would have to be "willfully blind" to miss Mohammed bin Salman's culpability in Khashoggi's murder.
"If they were in a Democratic administration," Graham said of Pompeo and Mattis, "I would be all over them for being in the pocket of Saudi Arabia."
A Washington Post analysis added:
To be clear, these senators aren't just accusing the administration of missing the point on Khashoggi; they're saying they feel misled and that the administration has obscured the truth. [...]Questioning Trump is not unprecedented for Republicans in Congress; the fact that they are going there on Pompeo and even Mattis, who is perhaps the most bipartisan figure in the administration, shows the severe degree of concern about the lack of consequences. These senators are serving notice that they won't back down without a fight -- a fight that could tar both Pompeo's and Mattis's legacies.
No one who agrees to be associated with Trump comes away unscathed.