Hard-line Republicans and conservative commentators are mounting a dark whisper campaign against Jamal Khashoggi that is designed to protect President Donald Trump from criticism of his handling of the dissident journalist's alleged murder by Saudi Arabia operatives - and support Trump's continued aversion to a forceful response to the oil-rich desert kingdom.
In recent days, a cadre of conservative House Republicans allied with Trump has been privately exchanging articles from right-wing outlets that fuel suspicion of Khashoggi, highlighting his association with the Muslim Brotherhood in his youth and raising conspiratorial questions about his work decades ago as an embedded reporter covering Osama bin Laden, according to four GOP officials involved in the discussions who were not authorized to speak publicly.
Those aspersions - which many lawmakers have been wary of stating publicly because of the political risks of doing so - have begun to flare into public view as conservative media outlets have amplified the claims, which are aimed in part at protecting Trump as he works to preserve the U.S.-Saudi relationship and avoid confronting the Saudis on human rights.
Trump's remarks about reporters amid the Khashoggi fallout have inflamed existing tensions between his allies and the media. At a Thursday rally in Montana, Trump openly praised Rep. Greg Gianforte, R-Mont., for assaulting a reporter in his bid for Congress last year.
"Any guy that can do a body slam, he's my kind of - he's my guy," Trump said.
Hours earlier, prominent conservative television personalities were making insinuations about Khashoggi's background.
"Khashoggi was tied to the Muslim Brotherhood," Fox News anchor Harris Faulkner asserted on Thursday's highly rated "Outnumbered" show. "I just put it out there because it is in the constellation of things that are being talked about." Faulkner then dismissed another guest who called her claim "iffy."
The message was echoed on the campaign trail. Virginia Republican Corey Stewart, who is challenging Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., told a local radio program Thursday that "Khashoggi was not a good guy himself."
While Khashoggi was once sympathetic to Islamist movements, he moved toward a more liberal, secular point of view, according to experts on the Middle East who have tracked his career. Khashoggi knew bin Laden in the 1980s and 1990s during the civil war in Afghanistan, but his interactions with bin Laden were as a journalist with a point of view who was working with a prized source.
Nevertheless, the smears have escalated. Donald Trump Jr., the president's eldest son and key political booster,shared a tweet last week with his millions of followers that included a line that Khashoggi was "tooling around Afghanistan with Osama bin Laden" in the 1980s, even though the context was a feature story on bin Laden's activities.
A Tuesday broadcast of CR-TV, a conservative online outlet founded by popular talk-radio host Mark Levin, labeled Khashoggi a "longtime friend" of terrorists and claimed without evidence that Trump was the victim of an "insane" media conspiracy to tarnish him. The broadcast has been viewed more than 12,000 times.
A story in far-right FrontPage magazine casts Khashoggi as a "cynical and manipulative apologist for Islamic terrorism, not the mythical martyred dissident whose disappearance the media has spent the worst part of a week raving about," and features a garish cartoon of bin Laden and Khashoggi with their arms around each other.
The conservative push comes as Saudi government supporters on Twitter have sought in a propaganda campaign to denigrate Khashoggi as a supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist movement once tolerated but now outlawed in Saudi Arabia as a terrorist organization.
"Trump wants to take a soft line so Trump supporters are finding excuses for him to take it," said William Kristol, a conservative Trump critic. "One of those excuses is attacking the person who was murdered."
Several Trump administration aides are aware of the Khashoggi attacks circulating on Capitol Hill and in conservative media, the GOP officials said, adding that aides are being careful to not encourage the disparagement but are also doing little to contest it.
The GOP officials declined to share the names of the lawmakers and others who are circulating information critical of Khashoggi because they said doing so would risk exposing them as sources.
Fred Hiatt, The Washington Post's editorial page editor who published Khashoggi's work, sharply criticized the false and distorted claims about Khashoggi, who is feared to have been killed and dismembered by Saudi operatives.
"As anyone knows who knew Jamal - or read his columns - he was dedicated to the values of free speech and open debate. He went into exile to promote those values, and now he may even have lost his life for his dogged determination in their defense," Hiatt said in a statement. "It may not be surprising that some Saudi-inspired trolls are now trying to distract us from the crime by smearing Jamal. It may not even be surprising to see a few Americans joining in. But in both cases it is reprehensible."
Trump said Thursday it appears Khashoggi is dead and warned that his administration could consider "very severe" measures against Saudi Arabia, which is conducting its own self-investigation. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin also announced that he would not attend the Future Investment Initiative summit in Saudi Arabia next week, delivering the Trump administration's first formal rebuke of Saudi's royal family.
"The president is concerned. He believes the relationship is important, so do I, but he also understands he's a leader on the world stage and everybody is watching and he is very concerned," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who met with Trump on Thursday.
Trump, whose grip on his party remains strong less than three weeks before the midterm elections, has seen his cautious approach to Saudi Arabia bolstered not only by the maligning of Khashoggi, but also by a conservative media infrastructure that is generally wary of the media and establishment Republicans. As criticism of Trump grows, powerful players in that orbit have stood by the president.
"Donald Trump is keeping his eye on the ball, keeping his eye on the geopolitical ball, the national security ball. He's not going to get sidetracked by what happened to a journalist, maybe, in the consulate there. He's not giving cover to anybody," syndicated talk-radio host Rush Limbaugh said Tuesday.
"For those who are screaming blood for the Saudis - look, these people are key allies," evangelical leader Pat Robertson said this week. "We've got an arms deal that everybody wanted a piece of. . . . It'll be a lot of jobs, a lot of money come to our coffers. It's not something you want to blow up willy-nilly."
Some Republicans on Capitol Hill, on the other hand, are discussing the possibility of legislative action against Saudi Arabia or other ways to lessen U.S. support.
Intelligence community officials this week have been providing continuous briefings on the investigation into Khashoggi's disappearance to the intelligence committees, whose members enjoy special clearance to view and hear sensitive information.
But in both the House and Senate, lawmakers without such clearance, including the leading Republicans on foreign policy matters, have grown frustrated with what many see as a deliberate attempt by the Trump administration to slow-walk responses to congressional requests for information about Khashoggi's disappearance, or in some cases ignore lawmakers' questions outright.
Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., have taken the step of invoking the Global Magnitsky Act to force Trump to report to Congress on whether people should be sanctioned over Khashoggi's alleged death, including Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
Yet there has been little confidence among senators that Trump will suddenly feel pressure to sanction high-ranking Saudi officials or take other strong punitive measures.
In the House, a perceived lack of cooperation from the White House on Khashoggi has compelled some Republicans to take new interest in a bill to invoke the War Powers Resolution to curtail U.S. military support for the Saudi-led coalition operating in Yemen's civil war. But the legislation has not secured the support of leading Republicans on foreign policy.
Last year, the House voted 366 to 30 to approve a nonbinding resolution stating that the United States' support for the Saudi-led coalition had not been congressionally authorized - an effort that did not rattle the administration, which continued to build its relationships with Saudi royalty.
Earlier this year, the Senate failed to enact legislation that would have curtailed U.S. support for the Saudi war effort, after appeals from Saudi officials and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis not to pass the measure.
(Except for the headline, this story has not been edited by NDTV staff and is published from a syndicated feed.)