It’s easier to make the opposite case. If an innocent man was killed for voicing (fairly tempered) critiques of the Saudi government, far better that the murder should get extensive attention and condemnation from around the world than that it should happen quietly and without consequences.
Read: The end of American lip service to human rights
For the Trump administration, which is anxious to preserve its relationship with Saudi Arabia, however, this is a complication. Faced with a moral outrage and a human-rights challenge, it sees a public-relations nightmare.
It’s not new for Trump to interpret matters largely from a marketing perspective. After all, his genius in business was not really dealmaking or building construction, but selling himself as the ultimate in dealmaking and building construction. Similarly, as a politician, he’s been far more interested in campaigning than in policy. What is unusual is that Trump has previously tended to subscribe to the belief that all publicity is good publicity.
On matters that endanger the close Saudi-American relationship, he has apparently decided that’s not the case. This explains much of the way the White House has handled the matter of Khashoggi’s disappearance. Early on, the president tried to distance himself from the matter, pointing out that Khashoggi was not an American citizen. Still, the backlash wouldn’t go away, so he sent Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on a trip to Saudi Arabia and Turkey. It quickly became clear that Pompeo’s visit was for show rather than substance.
Pressed by reporters on what he’d learned, Pompeo said, “ I don’t want to talk about any of the facts. They didn’t want to either.” (It’s hardly a surprise that no one in the Saudi government wanted to discuss the facts.) Pompeo left Riyadh with only a vow from the Saudis to complete a thorough investigation.
On Thursday, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin announced that he would not attend an investment conference in Saudi Arabia next month. But Mnuchin didn’t offer any rationale, like, for example, stating concern about Khashoggi’s death or the lack of answers from Riyadh. The implication was straightforward: He was canceling the trip because it looked bad, not because of any moral or policy qualms.
At the same time, The Washington Post reports that a group of conservative House Republicans and media allies have been waging a quiet whisper campaign to slur Khashoggi as an Islamist, with the goal of taking heat off Trump.
The American focus on a thorough investigation and Trump’s mantra of innocent until proven guilty make sense mostly as stalling mechanisms—which they almost certainly are. The Times reports that Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, has argued internally that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, with whom he has forged a close partnership, can weather this crisis, just as he did other ones, including the kidnapping of Lebanon’s prime minister and alleged war crimes in Yemen. This argument may well appeal to Trump, who has endured his fair share of crises, though nothing nearly as macabre as what Saudi Arabia is accused of.