Lindsey Graham's Political Theater

No protection for Mueller, but fire and brimstone for Khashoggi.

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 (not to mention endangers the lives of journalists everywhere, Americans included): that the US, the world’s presumed beacon of freedom and hope, no longer stands by its ideals.

But the fact is that most of men who killed over 3,000 Americans on Sept. 11, 2001, were Saudi, and the fact is that Osama bin Laden’s family was intimately entangled with Saudi royals, and the fact is that the US 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 US ties to the kingdom. Even if the president himself were not financially enmeshed with the Saudis, his decision might turn out to be the same.

So we have to wonder: What’s the difference?

Why are the Republicans calling for the Saudis to pay a price for murdering a journalist? I can’t imagine constituents are pressuring them. For most Americans, anything happening in Turkey may as well as be on Mars. That’s just the way it is with international affairs. Something is driving the Republicans. But what?

I can’t say I have the answers. It may have something to with scale—reacting to the murder of an individual versus reacting to the complicity of an entire ruling family. It may have something to do with domestic politics—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 the difference between one thing and the other, and 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 curious behavior. 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 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 encroaches on the investigation by firing Jeff Sessions and replacing him with a mook-of-the-month.

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.”

As McCain was, 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 how he and the House GOP justified impeaching Bill Clinton in 1998 for merely lying to a grand jury.

But since Trump’s election, he and the rest of the Republican Party 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, piling up, allowing the Democrats to come along and pick them up to be the next party of law and order.

So perhaps the best explanation for this curious behavior—the best way to understand why the Republicans are getting in Trump’s grill about a journalist’s death when the president is, in effect, doing what a previous president had done—is that it’s theater.

The GOP can’t go back. It cannot live up to its image and oppose the president. It can’t back way from the president and live up to its image. By calling for sanctions, a virtual slap on this wrist, the GOP can fight a rear-guard action to at least delay what cannot be stopped, which is the ideological bankruptcy of a once proud party.

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