Week In Politics: US-Saudi Relations And A Bigger-Than-Expected Blue Wave

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NPR’s Ari Shapiro speaks with political commentators Gayle Trotter and Kimberly Atkins of the Boston Herald about the United States’ relationship with Saudi Arabia, the Democrats potentially gaining as many as 40 seats in the House of Representatives and about Nancy Pelosi likely being voted House speaker again.



ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

With political leaders away for the holidays, the focus in Washington this week has been looking backwards and forwards. Looking back, results are still trickling in from the election night more than two weeks ago. It now looks like Democrats may have gained as many as 40 seats in the House of Representatives. Looking ahead, they are fighting over who will be speaker, with Nancy Pelosi appearing to gain support. At a taping of “The Axe Files” podcast, President Obama expressed confidence in her leadership.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, “THE AXE FILES WITH DAVID AXELROD”)

BARACK OBAMA: I think Nancy Pelosi, when the history is written, will go down as one of the most effective legislative leaders that we – this country has ever seen.

SHAPIRO: And down south at the Mar-a-Lago estate, the current president, Trump, has been attacking some of his favorite targets – the 9th Circuit Appeals Court, Hillary Clinton – but not the crown prince of Saudi Arabia. This week, Trump said there won’t be consequences for the killing last month of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi. When a reporter asked yesterday who should be held accountable, here’s what Trump said.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Maybe the world should be held accountable because the world’s a vicious place. The world is a very, very vicious place.

SHAPIRO: To discuss this and more from the week in politics, columnist Gayle Trotter of the Right In DC blog and the Boston Herald’s Kimberly Atkins are here with us. Welcome to both of you.

GAYLE TROTTER: Great to be with you.

KIMBERLY ATKINS: Hi there.

SHAPIRO: Let’s start with President Trump and his decision not to punish the Saudi crown prince, even though the CIA assess that Mohammed bin Salman approved the killing of Jamal Khashoggi. Trump said he doesn’t want to jeopardize weapons deals with the Saudis. Some analysts have said this will give a green light to autocrats that they can buy America’s silence if they purchase enough weapons. Kimberly, do you think that’s an accurate assessment?

ATKINS: I think it is. I think it’s a really big problem moving forward with this president in the face of what seems to be a clear, horrific civil – human rights violation to not stand up and say this is not going to be tolerated. And it’s putting him at odds even with some members of his own party in Congress who really want to see action, some sanctions, really pulling out of these arms deals, something that will send a message that the freedom of the press is important and the United States won’t give a green light to this kind of activity.

SHAPIRO: Gayle, do you think the president misjudged this?

TROTTER: Well, geopolitical alliances are fraught with difficult trade-offs. And I think that obviously this murder was brutal and horrific, but it’s unclear whether this is going to affect the United States’ alliance with Saudi Arabia. There’s certainly a political strain on the relationship, but it’s not just about the sale of weapons. It’s about the balance of power in the Middle East. And when you contrast Saudi Arabia’s position with Iran’s position, certainly there’s an understanding that America needs to make sure that Iran is not able to run roughshod over the entire Middle East. So it’s – there is much more involved in this calculation than just arms sales.

SHAPIRO: We’re seeing that Saudi Arabia-Iran tension play out in Yemen…

TROTTER: Yes.

SHAPIRO: …Which is where Saudi Arabia is using many of those weapons that the Saudis buy from the U.S. On Morning Edition today, David Miliband of the International Rescue Committee said U.S. involvement in that conflict is doing a lot of harm. Let’s listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

DAVID MILIBAND: The relationship that the U.S. has with Saudi Arabia needs to be put to good use. It’s vital that the rightful call by the secretary of defense and the secretary of state to halt this war that is doing no good for American interests, never mind American values. It’s vital that that call is followed through diplomatically at the highest levels.

SHAPIRO: Gayle, when you see the way that the Khashoggi killing consequences or lack thereof have played out, do you think the U.S. is giving up leverage it might have with the Saudis in Yemen?

TROTTER: No, certainly not. And we all need to know that Yemen is an amazing country with a beautiful culture, with incredible historical artifacts there that are really the patrimony of the entire human culture. So, certainly, when we’re looking at this warfare going on in Yemen, it’s a terrible, terrible thing, but Iran is an aggressor in this country, and Saudi Arabia is trying to make sure that the balance of power is not swayed towards Iran. So President Trump understands this very clearly, and he understands that given his campaign promises of putting America first that he has to take into account American interests in this area while also balancing the right of the Yemenis not to be in a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

SHAPIRO: Kimberly, the number of Yemeni lives lost, including children, seems a very high price to pay to keep Iran from having a center of power in the Middle East.

ATKINS: And it does, and the conflict there is also very complicated where the role that Saudi Arabia is playing in that. This is a prime opportunity for the United States to use that as leverage to say, look; we are to stand up against Saudi Arabia and the actions that they’ve taken that have claimed lives in this war. We have seen allies, including the U.K., pressing for a U.N. resolution to denounce Saudi Arabia and pressure them when it comes to the war in Yemen using this case, the awful murder of Jamal Khashoggi, as leverage. And it’ll be interesting to see if the United States yields to that. They haven’t come through so far. Certainly, the crown prince is unhappy at this effort. And so that will be a key thing moving forward.

SHAPIRO: Let’s turn now to the Democratic Party and the growing evidence that the blue wave was bigger than people realized on election night. Kimberly, what do you think the lessons are for the two parties from the midterms?

ATKINS: I mean, I think what we saw with the elections in both the Senate and the House, it really shows how divided the nation still is. But the Democrats did do very well. It didn’t feel like a blue wave because it took a while. It was more like a blue flood that slowly rose and is reaching higher heights. But particularly in areas like suburbs where you have a lot of women voters, a lot of voters of color, there is a – there was a rebuke of the president. He put himself on the ballot before the election before he took himself back off after the election. But we also saw very strong places in – places in the Midwest and elsewhere where President Trump’s support is still very strong. I think the country is dividing, and that’s what we’ll see play out through 2020.

SHAPIRO: Gayle, what’s your takeaway?

TROTTER: Well, Americans love divided government, so that is part of a grand history that we have. But I think you did see that this current administration has reached out to the cities to black populations. They had the young black conservative summit last month. And I think the Republican Party needs to continue to grow by addition and reach out to these communities that haven’t traditionally been Republican and continue to make inroads promising them opportunity, economic opportunity, better education, and they shouldn’t give up on those efforts.

SHAPIRO: I promised we’d get to Nancy Pelosi, but we’re almost out of time, so I just have to ask each of you the yes-no question. Do you think she will be the next speaker of the House?

TROTTER: Yes.

ATKINS: Yes.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter) OK, simple as that. Columnist Gayle Trotter of the Right In DC blog and Kimberly Atkins of the Boston Herald, happy Friday. Hope you had a wonderful Thanksgiving, and thanks for coming to the studio today.

TROTTER: Thank you.

ATKINS: Thanks for having me.

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