What got into Lindsey Graham?
Maybe it was the wave of nostalgia for an old school Washington brought on by the funeral of former President George H.W. Bush this week.
Or maybe it was the collective yearning for a simpler time when American presidents could walk 250 yards across the street to Blair House instead of taking a preposterous motorcade.
Whatever it was, it was nice to see the Republican senator from South Carolina temporarily shed his skin as a creature of the Washington establishment and return — however temporarily — to being the truth-teller of old who wasn’t afraid of jousting with then-candidate Donald Trump in the heat of the 2016 GOP primary campaign.
In case you missed it, Graham suggested this week that one [Read: Trump] had to be “willfully blind” to not conclude that Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was not responsible for the Oct. 2 murder and dismemberment of dissident Saudi journalist (and legal American resident) Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi mission in Istanbul.
As he and other senators exited a Tuesday briefing with CIA Director Gina Haspel, Graham said he’d been left with no doubt that the Saudi crown prince — whom the Washington media and political class insists on referring to as “MBS,” as if he’s some wayward Hollywood C-lister and not a murderous despot — was behind the gruesome killing.
According to reports, Khashoggi was cut apart with a bone saw. His body was still has not been recovered.
“I think Secretaries Pompeo and Mattis are following the lead of the president,” Graham said, referring to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary James Mattis, who have parroted the White House line by refusing to strongly condemn or blame the Saudi leader for a gross attack on human rights, press freedom, and the rule of law.
“There is not a smoking gun, there is a smoking saw,” Graham continued “You have to be willfully blind not to come to the conclusion that this was orchestrated by people under the command of MBS and he was intricately involved in the demise of Mr. Khashoggi.”
Trump has steadfastly refused to criticize the Saudi leader, claiming that he doesn’t want to jeopardize exaggerated billions in arms contracts with the Gulf kingdom. As recently as last week, Trump again questioned the CIA’s assessment that bin Salman was behind the journalist’s death.
“If you look at my statement, it’s maybe he did and maybe he didn’t,” Trump told The Washington Post “But he denies it. And people around him deny it.”
Trump continued, telling The Post that the Saudi leader had spoken to him about the case in three phone calls.
“And the CIA did not say affirmatively he did it, either, by the way. I’m not saying that they’re saying he didn’t do it, but they didn’t say it affirmatively,” Trump told the newspaper.
That, of course, is a ridiculous and offensive proposition given the apparent preponderance of the evidence against bin Salman.
But it isn’t the first time — nor will it be the last — that Trump has undercut and dismissed the findings of the American intelligence community.
Nor is it the first time that Trump has cozied up to a dictator and put their interests ahead of the compelling national security interests and bedrock values of the United States. If given the choice, from Vladimir Putin to Kim Jong Un, Trump will always, always Put Despots First.
In an appearance on Fox News on Tuesday night, Graham upped the ante, telling an interviewer that world leaders were watching how the White House is handling the Khashoggi controversy and that if Trump “[gives] this guy [bin Salman] a pass after he disrespected you, you will look weak and you don’t want to look weak.”
And, that ironically, might have been the most effective way for Trump to get the message that he’s in the wrong.
The president might not care about the rule of law. And he might not care about human rights. And he might not care about the United States’ place on the global stage. He certainly doesn’t care about press freedoms.
But it’s pretty clear that he cares about his image and his so-very-fragile ego.
And the last thing our narcissistic leader wants is to look weak in front of his fellow strongmen.
An award-winning political journalist, Micek is the Opinion Editor and Political Columnist for PennLive/The Patriot-News in Harrisburg, Pa. Readers may follow him on Twitter @ByJohnLMicek and email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.