An American president, in his first term, was crystal clear about how he saw America's strategic interests in selling arms to Saudi Arabia:

''I am convinced that providing Saudi Arabia with this equipment will improve the security of our friends, strengthen our own posture in the region and make it clear both to local governments and to [others] that the United States is determined to assist in preserving security and stability."

The Republican Senate rejected a resolution to block the sale, which had passed the Democratic House with an overwhelming margin. Again, this president said the sale:

"Will not only strengthen Saudi-American relations but will also protect our economic lifeline to the Middle East, win favour among moderate Arab nations, and most important, continue the difficult but steady progress toward peace and stability in the Middle East."

It was 1981. The president was Republican Ronald Reagan.

His proposal, early in his first term, to sell sophisticated AWACS aircraft to the Saudis provoked an open revolt on Capitol Hill, with several Republican senators breaking with Mr Reagan, and Democrats leading the fight in the House to block what was at that time the largest arms sale in United States history.

Now, President Trump has similarly large arms sales pending, amid public outcry at the Saudis' human rights record, from the murder of Jamal Khashoggi to the war crippling Yemen.

President Donald Trump meets with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Washington, DC
President Donald Trump meets with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Washington, DCSource: Getty

What America First really means

In responding to the horrific murder of Mr Khashoggi — a journalist for the Washington Post, and a resident of the US — President Trump landed on his clearest statement yet of what America First means to him:

"America First! The world is a very dangerous place! … After my heavily negotiated trip to Saudi Arabia last year, the Kingdom agreed to spend and invest $450 billion in the United States. This is a record amount of money. It will create hundreds of thousands of jobs, tremendous economic development, and much additional wealth for the United States …
After the United States, Saudi Arabia is the largest oil producing nation in the world. They have worked closely with us and have been very responsive to my requests to keeping oil prices at reasonable levels — so important for the world. As President of the United States I intend to ensure that, in a very dangerous world, America is pursuing its national interests and vigorously contesting countries that wish to do us harm. Very simply, it is called America First!"

In subsequent interviews, Mr Trump said the whole world is amoral, and therefore responsible for the conditions that permitted the cold-blooded murder of Mr Khashoggi, sanctioned at the highest levels of the Saudi Kingdom.

America First is not designed to uphold American principles: the pursuit in foreign policy of liberty, democracy, human rights, the rule of law, freedom of the press.

America First is about America's commercial, business, trade and economic interests: the dollars and cents that flow into the US. And the rest, as Rabbi Hillel might say, is commentary.

After the midterms, Democrats hold sway

The UK, France, Germany, Italy, Australia, Canada, and virtually all other front-line, critical allies of the US might beg to differ. But this is Mr Trump's view of the world and, as President, he has the constitutional power to enforce it — unless Congress moves to block him.

And this is where the results of the midterm elections, and the new Democratic majority in the House, will have traction, and spur a significant political and legislative battle on legislation to block arms sales and impose other sanctions on Saudi Arabia.

Those sales are the easiest lever to grasp in the bilateral relationship in order to send a message to Riyadh that this crime will not go unpunished.

Just as in 1981, the Democratic House — in particular the committees on Foreign Affairs and Intelligence — will convene hearings on the US-Saudi relationship.

They will focus on the forensic evidence of the murder itself and what the intelligence community has concluded about who authorised it.

The panels will compel testimony from the most senior Administration officials — including the head of the CIA and the Secretary of State — to front up and defend Mr Trump's America First policy as applied in this instance.

Those hearings will likely lead to legislation to block pending military sales, with a vote to be held on the House floor.

Mr Trump, just like Mr Reagan, will have to expend not insignificant political capital to try to stop such a resolution in the House, and to keep his Republican majority firmly in line with him in the Senate.

But what this process will capture is one of the enduring results of the midterms: the new Congress will not be the blank cheque that was the Congress of the first two years of this presidency.

Before, there were no deals on legislation with Democrats; Republicans voted in lockstep with Trump, and he had the numbers and won — especially on his tax cuts.

Those days are over.

Spotlight on Saudi Arabia not flicking off

In a world of woe — atrocities in Yemen, endless carnage in Syria, persecution of Rohingyas in Myanmar, hostility to religious minorities in China — it is extraordinary how the killing of one man can so capture the attention of people and leaders across continents.

That the victim worked for the Washington Post, one of the most prominent and forceful newspapers in the world, ensures that this news is not going away.

The Post's campaign to declassify the intelligence on Mr Khashoggi, to insist that Mr Trump issue, under applicable law, his judgment on who in the Saudi ruling circles ordered the murder, to dig deeper on business ties between the Trump family and the Saudis, and to press for further reform inside Saudi Arabia — this is the media context in which the House Democrats will press their case.

This is powerful political territory for them.

As the Post editorialised on Thanksgiving Day:

"A truly hard-headed president, mindful of US interests, would insist on accountability for those who planned and committed the murder. He would understand that the US-Saudi relationship, which is indeed important, cannot and does not depend on any single person.
He would understand that US standing in the world — and, therefore, US influence and prosperity — will dwindle if the United States offers no objection to the murder of a peaceful, 59-year-old resident of Northern Virginia who was trying to bring a bit of light into a confusing world.
This President does not understand any of that. It falls to Congress, therefore, to decide. It can follow Mr. Trump down the path of phony realism, and decline; or it can take a stand to help defend American values — and interests."

The Democrats in the House can be expected to succeed, in the early months of 2019, in their effort to block some arms sales to Saudi Arabia. And then the Senate will engage with the will of the America First president.