Saudi horrors should trigger Congress to assert its constitutional role again

Video image of Jamal Khashoggi entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul two weeks ago.
Video image of Jamal Khashoggi entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul two weeks ago.

The extent and severity of the U.S. response to the apparent murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi at the hands of a Saudi death squad could trigger a major conflict between Congress and the White House — possibly even leading the legislative branch to reassert its constitutional role for the first time since Trump’s rise to power

That Saudi Arabia could become the flashpoint for a congressional rebellion would have seemed highly unlikely a few years ago. The Kingdom has long financed a vast, costly and highly effective influence-peddling network in Washington, which was kicked up a notch in 2015. And Members of Congress have been trained to see cutting off military sales to any country as a political third rail after massive defense-industry spending on lobbyists and the distribution of defense facilities into as many congressional districts as possible.

But the apparently brutal, calculated murder of a U.S. resident who was a dissident Saudi journalist – after entering a Saudi consulate in Turkey to obtain papers in order to marry his fiancée – has turned even stalwart congressional Saudi hawks into horrified critics.

It also comes after a number of bold -– though widely ignored — congressional votes that came surprisingly close to demanding that Trump end support for the Saudi-led coalition bombing of Yemen, which has generated seemingly unending images of civilian victims and has created arguably the greatest humanitarian crisis in the world.

Trump shows no signs of being shaken loose from his tight embrace with the Saudis, which has included reveling in the “royal treatment” during his visit to Riyadh last May and a lovefest with Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman during the heir apparent’s PR charm offensive in the United States six months ago.

Although Trump was willing to mock the Saudis for cheap laughs at political rallies earlier this month, he and his son-in law Jared Kushner have long seen the Saudis as their greatest friends in the region, along with Israel.

Trump has effectively ruled out cutting arms sales, and continues to describe his relationship with the royal family as “excellent”. And in comments to the press yesterday, Trump expressed contentment that King Salman had “firmly denied any knowledge” of the murder, then put forth a ludicrous, evidence-free conspiracy theory intended to deflect the blame from the royal family, saying perhaps “rogue killers” were involved. “Who knows?”

Nevertheless, Trump said in a “60 Minutes” interview broadcast on Sunday that “We’re going to get to the bottom of it and there will be severe punishment.” So if and when the Saudi leadership is definitively identified as responsible, Congress can use that pledge as a blunt instrument to beat on Trump – if it chooses to.

Still, the easiest and best way to show some Congressional spine would be to keep moving forward on the earlier attempts to end U.S. support for the unconscionable Saudi-led bombing campaign that is killing civilians in Yemen.

Even more than insisting on punishment for the Khashoggi murder, demanding an end to that support would effectively seize back Congress’s core, constitutional powers from the president — in this case, the power to declare war. Congress has ceded vast amounts of its constitutionally-mandated authority to the executive branch, particularly since the 9/11 terror attacks. And despite Trump’s obvious instability, it hasn’t reasserted itself in any way.

Most importantly, ending U.S. support to the coalition could also save the lives of countless civilian victims who would otherwise continue to be blown up by U.S. bombs in a largely ignored war

The House, in November of last year, overwhelmingly passed (336 to 30) a resolution stating that Congress had not authorized U.S. military assistance in Yemen. It was admittedly a far cry from the original resolution demanding and end to the assistance, but the margin was significant. And this past February, after Senators Mike Lee (Republican), Bernie Sanders (independent) and Chris Murphy (Democrat) demanded a vote on ending military support, they came up only six votes short. Five Republicans supported the bill, with 10 Democrats opposed.

“I think one of the strong things that we can do is not only stop military sales, not only put sanctions on Saudi Arabia, but most importantly, get out of this terrible, terrible war in Yemen led by the Saudis,” Sanders said on Sunday.

And now you have unexpected voices like South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham’s talking about how he intends to “sanction the hell out of Saudi Arabia.” Similarly, Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio called for end to “business as usual” on Sunday. “No matter how important they might be to our Iranian strategy, our ability to be a voice for human rights … is undermined and compromised if we are not willing to confront something as atrocious as what’s allegedly happened here,” he said.

A powerful bipartisan group of senators already took unprecedented action to force Trump’s hand last week. In a letter, 22 members of the Senate including the leaders of the Foreign Relations Committee triggered a provision of the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act of 2016, asserting a “gross violation of internationally recognized human rights against an individual exercising freedom of expression.” That means Trump must respond within 120 days with a classified or unclassified report that determines who was responsible, and says what he intends to do about it.

The congressional clock is ticking faster than that — but action is hardly guaranteed. There’s a reason the modern Congress’s approval rating is so low: It rarely fails to disappoint.

President says crazy thing we’re not going to dignify by putting in a headline

It happened again today. The president of the United States said something flat-out nutty, and our major news organizations treated it like normal news, slapping it into the headlines and passing it along to their readers with little more than the standard, buried “critics said” response.

Trump was telling reporters outside Marine One this morning that he had talked to King Salman of Saudi Arabia about what is almost universally presumed to be the murder of prominent Saudi journalist and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul nearly two weeks ago.

Trump said Salman “firmly denied any knowledge of it.” Then, Trump said this: “It sounded to me like maybe these could have been rogue killers. Who knows?” Here’s the full quote:

We are going to leave nothing uncovered.  With that being said, the King firmly denied any knowledge of it.  He didn’t really know.  Maybe — I don’t want to get into his mind — but it sounded to me like maybe these could have been rogue killers.  Who knows?  We’re going to try getting to the bottom of it very soon. But his was a flat denial.

A reporter asked “who else could it be besides Saudi Arabia?” Trump replied:

I don’t know.  We’re going to try to getting to the bottom of it.  I can only tell you that his denial to me is — just one very, you know, relatively fast phone call.  Probably lasted 20 minutes.  His denial to me could not have been stronger that he had no knowledge.  And it sounded like he, and also the Crown Prince, had no knowledge.

The New York Times recognized the statement was a big deal, putting it in the headline of its story and the lede. But it wasn’t until the sixth paragraph that it offered any context – and even that was taking the comment seriously:

In introducing the possibility that another party could have been involved in Mr. Khashoggi’s disappearance, the president opened a window for King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to stand by their denials.

Like many other news organizations, the Times dodged any value judgment of its own, instead using this tweet from Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) as the sole indication of its absurdity.

The Washington Post didn’t mention the rogue quote until the third paragraph of its story, but then waited eight more paragraphs to note that: “Trump floating a ‘rogue killers’ scenario prompted ridicule from Democrats in Congress.”

As many news organizations have reported, Turkish officials have identified the members of a 15-man Saudi team arriving and leaving the consulate in a black Mercedes van around the time of Khashoggi’s apparent murder. The team included a forensic expert who brought along a bone saw.

Suggesting, without any evidence, that this was a “rogue” operation is the desperate fabulation of a man who doesn’t want to acknowledge weakness by admitting anything bad about any of the authoritarian leaders he calls friends.

The Associated Press’s brief report on Trump’s comment came a bit closer to expressing the appropriate shock and skepticism, drily noting that “Trump’s language was strikingly similar to the language he has used to describe Russian President Vladimir Putin’s denials of election meddling.

And in fact the “rogue killers” hypothesis is strikingly similar to Trump’s lone hacker theory.

Talking during his first presidential debate with Hillary Clinton who hacked the Democratic National Committee, Trump famously said: “I mean, it could be Russia, but it could also be China. It could also be lots of other people. It also could be somebody sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds, OK?

’60 Minutes’ gave Donald Trump exactly what he wanted by treating him like a normal president

"I am not a baby," Trump tells Stahl on "60 Minutes).
“I am not a baby,” Trump tells Stahl on “60 Minutes).

For better or worse, CBS News’s “60 Minutes” is the closest that American journalism comes to a court of law. The interviewers confront the subjects with the most damning evidence they’ve got, drill down to demand answers, and if the subjects come out without a major loss, it’s like a not-guilty verdict.

But in the “60 Minutes” interview broadcast last night, Donald Trump ran circles around Lesley Stahl because she didn’t even attempt to confront him with the evidence of his most critical failures as a president – chief among them his truly unprecedented, constant lying.

As I’ve written before, sitting down for an interview with someone who lies all the time, but not addressing those credibility problems, is enabling. It’s not good journalism.

Similarly, Trump exists in a fantasy bubble of adoration and a journalist who can get a one-on-one interview has an obligation to disturb it by presenting him with unassailable facts and pushing back when he denies them.

Instead, Stahl just did the normal thing, as if he were a normal president, hopping from one topic to another, getting mostly familiar talking points.

Her interview included just enough pushback to say she pushed back and just enough fact-checking to say she fact-checked. But the pushback was so quickly abandoned, and the fact-checking was confined to so few of his most outrageous statements, that it only gave more credence to all the lies Stahl didn’t rebut or didn’t rebut enough. Time and time again, she gave Trump the last word, even though it wasn’t true:

Consider some elements of Trump’s alternate history that Stahl left unrebutted:

  • “The day before I came in, we were going to war with North Korea.” (Ridiculous.)
  • That the United States had been “paying almost the entire cost of NATO to protect Europe. (Nonsense.)
  • “The European Union was formed in order to take advantage of us on trade, and that’s what they’ve done.” (Nutty.)

Perhaps even more agonizing than watching this colossal missed opportunity of an interview was listening to Stahl’s self-satisfied on-camera debriefing by Frank Devine.

Stahl evidently knew exactly what role Trump wanted her to play:

Devine: Why do you think President Trump decided on an interview with you now, at this particular time?

Stahl: I think he’s trying to win the midterm election for the Republicans. And I think he believes, and I know his people believe, the more he’s out there, publicly– the stronger the chances are for the Republicans. And the better for him. And– I think the White House has come to believe it’s a mistake to try to restrain him, to keep him off television, to keep him away from these rallies. And he loves doing it. He really– he– he gets a lot of energy from crowds. And– and I think he gets a lot of energy wrestling the way he did with me.

But rather than do a public service by confronting him with his deceit and his delusion, she had a “sparring” match – which Stahl herself recognized that he enjoyed: “He enjoyed the sparring. He said so. And I could tell he enjoyed it.”

There were a few moments when I cheered for Stahl. This was one:

Trump: They say that we had hurricanes that were far worse than what we just had with Michael.

Stahl: Who says that? “They say”?

Trump: People say. People say.

What a great question! What a perfectly Trumpian answer. In fact, “people say” — just like “believe me” — is one of Trump’s most common tells that the exact opposite is true. But Stahl didn’t drill down, she moved on:

Stahl: Yeah, but what about the scientists who say it’s worse than ever?

Trump: You’d have to show me the scientists because they have a very big political agenda, Lesley.

And Stahl didn’t point out the absurdity of suggesting that the overwhelming majority of climate scientists have a “political agenda” that trumps their commitment to science.

When Stahl asked Trump about the disappearance and presumed murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi officials at their embassy in Turkey, Trump responded by saying the Saudi king had denied responsibility. Then he said, oddly. “Could it be them? Yes.”

Stahl let that one go, rather than pressing Trump on what the heck he meant by that. This morning, Trump volunteered that answer, saying maybe it was “rogue killers.” But he did it in an environment where no one could pose the obvious follow up question: some variation of “are you out of your mind?”

The one time Stahl did confront Trump with facts – about the North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s history – was the highlight for me. You could see Trump squirming defensively under the onslaught of actual grown-up information – and this after a clip of Trump declaring his “love affair” with the man.

Lesley Stahl: I wanna read you his resume, okay? He presides over a cruel kingdom of repression, gulags, starvation– reports that he had his half-brother assassinated, slave labor, public executions. This is a guy you love?

President Donald Trump: Sure. I know all these things. I mean– I’m not a baby. I know these things.

Stahl: I know, but why do you love that guy?

President Donald Trump: Look, look. I– I– I like– I get along with him, okay?

Stahl: But you love him.

President Donald Trump: Okay. That’s just a figure of speech.

Another promising moment came when Stahl asked Trump if he believes the Russians interfered with the 2016 election. And she properly contextualized his inability to answer:

Trump: They– they meddled. But I think China meddled too.

Stahl: But why do you–

Trump: And I think other countries–

Stahl: –say China meddled too?

Trump: And you wanna know something?

Stahl: Why do you say Chi– why don’t you just say–

Trump: Well, let me ask you–

Stahl: –the Russians meddled?

Trump: Because I think China meddled also. And I think, frankly, China–

Stahl: This is amazing.

Trump: –is a bigger problem.

Stahl: You are diverting the whole Russia thing.

Trump: I’m not doing anything.

Stahl: You are, you are.

But she didn’t confront him with the facts about Russian interference, or the appropriate skepticism about his preposterous China dodge.

The voice-over fact-check was profoundly lame and insufficient:

But it’s the investigation of Russia’s intervention in the 2016 election that hangs over his presidency and caused a rift with his Attorney General Jeff Sessions, because he recused himself from the inquiry.

When Trump insisted that Russia “wouldn’t be able to help me at all,” Stahl didn’t point to the evidence showing that they did help him, potentially enough to have tipped the election.

Stahl did get Trump on the record supporting the heinous policy of separating children from their families at the border. She asked if he had any regrets about the practice, which has been suspended, for now. Trump replied: “When you allow the parents to stay together [with their children], OK? When you allow that, then people are going to pour into our country.”

So what was going on? Stahl, far from being an aggressive representative for the public, instead represented the bizarre inside-the-beltway desire for bipartisanship, regardless of how crazy one side has gotten. You could hear in her plaintive call for “healing”. “But why not try to bring us together? But why not — why not try and– we need to be healed,” Stahl said.

Trump replied, “I don’t think they want to heal yet, I’ll be honest.”

And although he may have been talking about Senate Democrats, rather than the country as a whole, either way, he was right. “Healing” is not going to happen as long as Trump actively advocates divisive policies and conduct. And that’s his central strategy.

So it was Stahl who was being delusional that time.

It’s the Fed’s independence – not its monetary policy – that drives Trump crazy

The Federal Reserve Building.
The Federal Reserve Building.

Donald Trump’s recent string of insults directed at the Federal Reserve are at first blush about monetary policy.

But they actually have more to do with his inability to grasp – not to mention appreciate – the value of any government institution that is insulated from political manipulation.

For Trump to call the Fed “loco” and “wild” isn’t just psychological projection – though it more assuredly is that. The big takeaway is how angry he is that the agency isn’t doing what he wants.

It’s highly reminiscent of Trump’s continued fury that the Department of Justice has not been willing to launch criminal investigations of his political opponents on his say-so. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has repeatedly earned Trump’s ire for failing to protect him from special counsel Robert Mueller, leading Trump to complain last month that “I don’t have an attorney general,.”

Trump has also famously challenged intelligence assessments that don’t comport to his views.

Now, Trump is trash-talking the Fed. “The problem that I have is with the Fed. The Fed is going wild,” he said Wednesday night, complaining that interest rates are too high. “The Fed is going loco, and there’s no reason for them to do it. I’m not happy about it.”

“And I think I know about it better than they do. Believe me,” he told reporters on Thursday morning.

Top economic advisor Larry Kudlow tried to wave off Trump’s comments about the Fed, saying “The president says a lot of things. He has a lot of fun.”

And there’s some truth to that. Trump was mostly blowing off steam; he isn’t actually doing anything to back up his talk.

Sure, Trump would be happier if the Fed lowered interest rates to heat up the economy even more (especially between now and the midterms). But contrary to some inside-the-beltway pearl clutching, the Fed is so completely dominated by inflation-averse representatives of the financial industry that we are not even remotely on the brink of turning into a hyperinflationary banana republic.

And consider that Trump’s one Fed nominee awaiting confirmation, Marvin Goodfriend, is a well-known inflation hawk – as is the man Trump chose to become chairman, Jerome Powell.

Washington Post columnist Catherine Rampell expressed concern that Trump is breaking with precedent: “[F[or the most part, for the past several decades, administrations have maintained a policy of not commenting on monetary policy. They understood that raising even the specter of a compromised Fed was just too risky,” she wrote.

But the problem isn’t that Trump said something. It’s not even what he said – progressives also criticize the Fed for being so focused on limiting inflation instead of, say, helping the job market.  For instance, the Center for Economic and Policy Research’s Dean Baker writes that Trump is actually correct that the Fed is too concerned about inflation. “In this context it is perfectly reasonable for politicians to criticize the conduct of monetary policy,” Baker wrote.

The problem is why Trump said what he said.

Kevin Warsh, a former Fed governor who Trump interviewed at length for the top post last year. told Politico in May that Trump did not appear to see the advantage of an agency making decisions in the best long-term interests of the country rather than the bidding of the president.

“In some sense,” Warsh said, “the broader notion of an independent agency, that’s probably not an obvious feature to the president.”