The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion If Trump helps cover up Khashoggi’s alleged murder, that will also come out

(Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Horrifying new details are leaking out about the reported murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi: According to a Turkish official who described audio of the killing, Saudi agents beat and tortured Khashoggi to death, then dismembered him and cut off his fingers.

Unbearably, it’s not clear whether the latter came after the finality of the former.

At the same time, there is mounting evidence that President Trump is, shall we say, less than eager to determine the full truth. As The Post’s Shane Harris reports:

The Trump administration and the Saudi royal family are searching for a mutually agreeable explanation for the death of journalist Jamal Khashoggi — one that will avoid implicating Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is among the president’s closest foreign allies, according to analysts and officials in multiple countries.

An agreeable explanation? Is that really what we should be searching for?

We don’t know yet know what direction the Trump administration’s handling of the alleged killing of Khashoggi, a Post contributor, will take. But if the administration falls short in demanding a full accounting from the Saudis, or, worse, goes along with a sham Saudi accounting, either of those will in itself be another truth that won’t remain buried forever. That’s because it will be an appropriate topic for congressional scrutiny.

Several experts and congressional aides I spoke with suggested that a Democratic-controlled House would be very likely to take a hard look at multiple aspects of the Trump administration’s response to the matter, one that looks at the broader Trump-Saudi relationship and even Trump’s personal profiting off of Saudi money.

“This is exactly the kind of issue that Congress should get into,” Joel Rubin, who was the State Department’s senior liaison to the House of Representatives in 2014 and 2015, told me today. “We’ve got a specific issue where the White House’s comments are changing and confused. The primary liaison to the Saudis, Jared Kushner, is hidden from public view. This is a slam dunk issue for oversight.”

In a series of private conversations, Trump has reportedly been looking for ways to continue protecting the Saudi-U.S. relationship, fretting about the Saudi investment in U.S. arms, the future flow of Saudi oil and the implications of alienating a country that could help counter Iran’s influence.

And so, Trump has publicly suggested that “rogue killers” might be behind the alleged murder. Trump also tweeted that the crown prince has begun “a full and complete investigation into this matter.” Trump, then, appears prepared, or even eager, to accept the results of this investigation.

Indeed, Trump compared this situation with that of Supreme Court justice Brett M. Kavanaugh, complaining, “here we go again with, you know, you’re guilty until proven innocent.” The comparison is revealing: Trump’s conception of due process constitutes not just the presumption of innocence (which is granted far more readily to friends and allies), but crucially also harbors zero desire for any serious follow-up fact-finding that could unearth truths that are inconvenient to them — and to him.

Columnist David Ignatius and editor Karen Attiah remember Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi, who was murdered in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul in October 2018. (Video: Gillian Brockell/The Washington Post, Photo: Courtesy of Hatice Cengiz/The Washington Post)

A terrible scenario

Imagine, then, the following scenario: The Saudis mount a sham investigation that somehow absolves the crown prince of any culpability of or connection to the alleged murder. Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo signal that they find it satisfactory.

If that happens, Rubin tells me, then there are ways for serious congressional oversight — led by Republicans if they were so inclined, or by Democrats, who would certainly do this if they take the House — to try to get to the bottom of that.

For instance, Rubin points out, House committees could probe what transpired privately between the Trump administration and the Saudis throughout the process. “Congress could subpoena communications between the White House, State Department, and the Saudis — internal discussions related to the Khashoggi affair,” Rubin told me. He added that House committees could seek private or public briefings from intelligence officials about what the intelligence indicates about the Khashoggi case, in contrast to what the Saudi “investigation” found.

As it is, the intelligence we know about seems to point in an extremely troubling direction. A U.S. intelligence official told The Post that intercepts show that the crown prince ordered an operation to lure Khashoggi back to Saudi Arabia. U.S. officials also say privately that they have no reason to doubt the account provided by Turkish officials. And experts highly doubt such an operation would be undertaken by Saudi agents without the crown prince’s direction or assent.

But, in a particularly alarming moment, Sen. Bob Corker, the Tennessee Republican who chairs the Foreign Relations Committee, told The Post that the administration has “clamped down” in sharing intelligence with Congress about what has been learned about Khashoggi’s fate. Corker flatly stated that this probably means “the intel is not painting a pretty picture as it relates to Saudi Arabia.”

Serious congressional oversight could try to force this out into the open. In fairness, it should be noted that some Republican officials have been scaldingly critical of the Saudis’ handling of this affair, and in some cases, Congress has been willing to behave aggressively towards them. But the question is whether Republicans would be willing to conduct serious oversight into this whole saga that might look at the Trump administration’s handling of it.

As Rubin pointed out, it seems unlikely that, say, current House Intelligence Committee chair Devin Nunes would supply such an effort, since it would create discomfort for Trump, who is basically Nunes’s client at this point. “If you want oversight on the Khashoggi affair, the one shot is if you have Democrats control the House,” Rubin said.

Trump’s financial entanglements with the Saudis

Such an examination would inevitably look at Trump’s financial entanglements with the Saudis as well. Senate Democrats have requested that Trump turn over information about the Trump Organization’s extensive “business relationships with the government of Saudi Arabia and members of the Saudi royal family,” suggesting this raises serious conflict of interest potential. The question of whether Trump’s personal profiting off the Saudis is shaping U.S. policy is a reasonable one — and the possibility cannot be dismissed that this includes the response to the Khashoggi affair — all of which could be the focus of more robust oversight.

Mariah Sixkiller, who was senior national security adviser to House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer for years, told me that scrutiny of the relationship between the United States and the Saudis, particularly with regard to the Trump administration’s coddling of them, “will likely grow if the Democrats win the House majority.”

“Khashoggi’s murder is part of a disturbing trend of increasingly undemocratic behavior by a supposedly reform-minded leadership in Riyadh,” Sixkiller said. The relationship between the U.S. and Saudis is “critical in many respects,” Sixkiller added, “but this level of administration deference in the face of such a radical act merits heavy congressional scrutiny.”

Let’s hope we get it sooner rather than later.


Update: I just spoke with Rep. Eliot Engel of New York, the ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee who would take over as chairman if Democrats win the House majority.

Engel told me that he has traditionally been a supporter of the U.S.-Saudi relationship, but questioned the Trump administration’s commitment to learning the full truth about Khashoggi’s alleged murder.

“I don’t think we should sweep it under the rug,” Engel told me. “The administration is trying to pooh-pooh it.”

Asked whether the committee would investigate the Trump administration’s handling of the affair if it becomes clear that the administration went along with Saudi efforts to whitewash what happened, Engel declined to say directly.

But Engel said: “This not something we can turn our heads away from.”

I want a full accounting of what happened,” Engel told me. “The House Foreign Affairs Committee clearly has jurisdiction over something like this.”

Which hints pretty clearly at where this might end up going.