Lindsey Graham’s Political Theater

If you think about it, the president’s approach to Saudi Arabia isn’t unusual. Sure, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in the most horrific manner imaginable. Sure, looking the other way while an ally chokes off dissent sends a terrible message and endangers the lives of journalists everywhere. And sure, it conveys that the U.S., the world’s presumed beacon of freedom and hope, no longer stands by its ideals.

But the fact is that most of the men who killed more 3,000 Americans on 9/11 were Saudi. Osama bin Laden’s family was intimately entangled with Saudi royals and the U.S. invaded the Saudi royal’s regional rival, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. The Saudis not only got away with being held responsible for murder, they benefited from it. That Donald Trump is now maintaining a purely transactional relationship, ignoring a moral crisis arising from Khashoggi’s death, seems in keeping with U.S. ties to the kingdom. Even if the president himself were not financially enmeshed with the Saudis, his reaction to to the brutal Khashoggi murder might still have been the same.

So we have to wonder why some Republicans are so adamant that the Saudis to pay a price for murdering a journalist. I can’t imagine their constituents are pressuring them, as appalling as the crime was. Something else is driving the Republicans.

I can’t say I have the answers. It may just be easier to react to the murder of an individual than the complicity of an entire ruling family. Khashoggi certainly put a face on Riyadh’s oppressive tactics. It may also have something to do with domestic politics—it’s better to oppose the president on foreign affairs than on national matters. Other people may have good answers, or frame the question differently. I’m merely pointing out that Republicans are unsatisfied with Donald Trump’s indifference, even if that indifference might be charitably called Realpolitik.

I’m especially curious about Lindsey Graham’s recent posturing. Since John McCain’s death in August, Graham has revealed himself to be an obsequious defender of all things Trump. He famously began the president’s tenure warning that firing Robert Mueller–or otherwise interfering with the prosecution of justice–would lead to immediate impeachment. But since McCain died, Graham has softened his hard line, suggesting the Senate need not act to protect Mueller, even as the president has fired Jeff Sessions and replaced him with a Yes-man.

Yet Graham emerged Tuesday from a Senate briefing with CIA Director Gina Haspel full of fire and brimstone. “There was no smoking gun,” Graham said. “There was a smoking saw [a reference the allegation that Khashoggi was dismembered with a bone saw]. You have to be willfully blind not to come to the conclusion that this was orchestrated and organized by people under the command of [Bin Salman] and that he was intricately involved in the demise of Mr. Khashoggi. It is zero chance—zero—that this happened in such an organized fashion without the crown prince.”

Just like McCain, Graham is seen as an authority on foreign policy. He has a reputation for being a hawk. Moreover, he made his career out of taking the hardest line possible on any president deviating in any way from an extremely narrow set of behaviors that his fellow Republicans deemed worthy of presidents. That is precisely how he and House Republicans justified impeaching Bill Clinton in 1998 for lying to a grand jury.

But since Trump’s election, he and the rest of the GOP have steadily lost, bit by bit, the credibility they once had for defending the rule of law and the American way of justice. It’s as if Graham has been throwing $100 bills out the window of the Russell Senate Office Building, littering the street below and allowing the Democrats to come along and pick them up to become the next party of law and order.

Perhaps the best explanation for this curious behavior—the best way to understand why the Republicans are challenging Trump on Khashoggi when, in actuality, the president has done what a previous president had done and let Saudi Arabia off the hook—is that it’s merely theater.

The GOP can’t go back. It cannot live up to its image and oppose this president, not after it’s carried this much water for him. By calling for sanctions on Saudi Arabia, a virtual slap on the wrist, Republicans can’t conceal what is already in plain sight: the ideological bankruptcy of their party.

John Stoehr

John Stoehr is a Washington Monthly contributing writer.