Trump’s Saudi First Response to the Pensacola Attack

Originally appeared at The American Conservative.

The president’s response to the Pensacola Naval Air Station shooting reflects his ugly habit of shielding Saudi Arabia from all criticism:

When a Saudi Air Force officer opened fire on his classmates at a naval base in Pensacola, Fla., on Friday, he killed three, wounded eight and exposed anew the strange dynamic between President Trump and the Saudi leadership: The president’s first instinct was to tamp down any suggestion that the Saudi government needed to be held to account.

Hours later, Mr. Trump announced on Twitter that he had received a condolence call from King Salman of Saudi Arabia, who clearly sought to ensure that the episode did not further fracture their relationship. On Saturday, leaving the White House for a trip here for a Republican fund-raiser and a speech on Israeli-American relations, Mr. Trump told reporters that “they are devastated in Saudi Arabia,” noting that “the king will be involved in taking care of families and loved ones.” He never used the word “terrorism.”

What was missing was any assurance that the Saudis would aid in the investigation, help identify the suspect’s motives, or answer the many questions about the vetting process for a coveted slot at one of the country’s premier schools for training allied officers. Or, more broadly, why the United States continues to train members of the Saudi military even as that same military faces credible accusations of repeated human rights abuses in Yemen, including the dropping of munitions that maximize civilian casualties.

The Pensacola shooting was a treacherous attack carried out by a member of the Saudi military against U.S. officers on American soil. The only reason that this man was in the US at all was so that he could receive pilot training that he would probably have gone on to use in the service of the kingdom’s despicable bombing campaign in Yemen. The attack calls into question the Saudi military’s vetting of its own officers and the US military’s scrutiny of the officers that it accepts into its training programs. This Saudi officer should never have been in the US, and it is a serious failure by both governments that he was allowed to participate in this program. It is one more example of why providing training to Saudi officers in the US is a mistake. There should be serious consequences for future U.S.-Saudi cooperation, and there must be a thorough investigation to determine what went wrong on our government’s end that this person was accepted into the training program and granted entry into the U.S.

At the very least, we would expect the president and the Secretary of State to express their condemnation and outrage at the murders of American servicemen before they echoed the official talking points from Riyadh, but with this administration the main concern is to cover for the Saudis first. The article quotes Bruce Riedel:

But even stranger, said Mr. Riedel, was “the president’s parroting of the Saudi line” before learning the results of an investigation into whether the gunman acted alone, or had allegiances to Al Qaeda or terrorist groups.

This is the latest in a series of episodes in which the president parrots the Saudi line, because he has been determined to appear subservient before the Saudi government whenever there has been an opportunity to do so. One might think that an attack on a US military base by a Saudi officer would be an occasion when he would make an exception, but it is not. It is all very well that the Saudi government expresses condolences for the attack, but the president shouldn’t be acting as their mouthpiece. The president should be demanding answers from them instead of running interference for them with the press. The article goes on to quote Aaron David Miller:

“If Trump wants to convey condolences from Saudi King Salman, fine,” Mr. Miller wrote on Twitter after the shooting. “But you don’t do it on day – Americans are killed – untethered from a message of ironclad assurances from King to provide” whatever cooperation is necessary to understand the gunman and his motives. “Otherwise Trump sounds like what he has become – a Saudi apologist.”

There are hardly any foreign governments that the president refuses to criticize publicly, but he won’t say a word against the Saudi government no matter what happens. It was despicable when he recited Saudi propaganda to keep support for the war on Yemen going, and it was outrageous when he tried to help the Saudi government cover up their role in murdering Jamal Khashoggi, and it is disgusting that he still goes out of his way to protect them after this attack. The current noxious U.S.-Saudi relationship should have been ended years ago, and this attack and the president’s shameful rush to side with the Saudis are the latest reminders why it must end.

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at The American Conservative, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and is a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Dallas. Follow him on Twitter. This article is reprinted from The American Conservative with permission.

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