The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Democrats must hold Trump accountable on Saudi Arabia. Adam Schiff explains how.

(J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

President Trump has again brushed off the horrifying murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, blithely claiming that the Saudi crown prince “vehemently denied” any role in the killing. Trump again appears to be contradicting the CIA, which has reportedly determined that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman did, in fact, order the assassination, which was carried out by Saudi agents.

But, while in some ways Trump’s latest comments — delivered from his Mar-a-Lago resort on Thursday — reiterate his reprehensible statement from earlier this week, this time Trump went further, both in taking a cavalier stance toward the murder and in casting doubt on the CIA’s reported conclusion. Trump claimed the crown prince “hates” the crime and its coverup “more than I do” — which sounds a lot like exoneration — and characterized the CIA’s conclusions as mere “feelings.”

This raises the questions: What did the intelligence conclude, and is Trump deliberately downplaying it, which would constitute active participation in covering up the truth on the crown prince’s behalf?

It turns out we are not helpless in answering these questions. They can and will be the subject of scrutiny when Democrats take over the House majority next year.

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In an interview with me, Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) — the incoming chairman of the House Intelligence Committee — confirmed that the committee will be examining these and other questions related to Trump’s response to the Khashoggi murder and its broader implications.

“Certainly we will be delving further into the murder of Khashoggi, and I want to make sure that the committee is fully debriefed on it,” Schiff told me. “We will certainly want to examine what the intelligence community knows about the murder.”

In his latest comments, and in his recent statement, Trump cast the question of whether the crown prince ordered the killing as an unanswered one. In both, Trump said: “Maybe he did” and “maybe he didn’t.”

But as Schiff pointed out to me, congressional scrutiny of this matter will attempt to flesh out in greater detail what, in particular, the intelligence community has concluded and how firm the basis is for that conclusion. Members of Congress will then have a clearer sense of whether Trump is deliberately misrepresenting that conclusion to protect the crown prince, and if so, how audaciously.

“We’ll look at what the intelligence community assessments are at any given time,” Schiff said, while stressing that he was not characterizing the CIA’s conclusions on the Khashoggi killing one way or the other. “Then it will be quite clear whether the president is relying on the intelligence community and our best source of information or whether the president is representing something very different.”

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)

Democrats will examine many questions about the Saudis

Schiff stressed, however, that the committee would look at much broader questions about the United States’ relationship with Saudi Arabia and about that country’s conduct on other fronts. Schiff vowed a “deep dive on Saudi Arabia” that would also look at “the war in Yemen,” at “how stable is the House of Saud” and how “the kingdom is treating its critics or members of the press generally,” among other things.

Trump has repeatedly justified his hands-off approach to the Khashoggi killing with lies about how much we’re benefiting from the relationship, particularly when it comes to continued arms sales. Schiff noted that the proper role of the Intelligence Committee would be to establish what exactly the intelligence tells us about the Saudis on all these fronts, which could then supply members of Congress with more information to try to hold the Saudis accountable — for example, through sanctions — in defiance of the president, if necessary.

“If members of Congress are able to get a complete briefing on Saudi Arabia” or on other matters, Schiff told me, and this shows “the facts to be at odds with what the president is representing,” then Congress will be “armed with good enough information that it can take action to make sure that our national interests are protected and that we base our policy on the facts.”

Schiff noted that this would enable Congress to determine whether Trump “is making representations to the public that are at odds with what we know.” Schiff also said the goal, on this and many other fronts, such as North Korea denuclearization, would be to “provide some accountability if the president is representing evidence that we know to be untrue and putting the country at risk.”

Scrutiny of Trump’s financial interests

Another big question is whether Trump’s financial relations with the Saudis are shaping his response in some way. Schiff said that Democrats will also delve into Trump’s international financial entanglements — on the Saudi matter and others — though he said which committees will look at what remains to be determined.

“There are a whole set of potential financial conflicts of interest and emoluments problems that Congress will need to get to the bottom of,” Schiff said. “Certainly if foreign investment in the Trump businesses is guiding U.S. policy in a way that’s antithetical to the country’s interests, we need to find out about it.”

The Trumpian ethos at stake

In his comments on Thursday, Trump was asked who should be held accountable for the Khashoggi murder. The president replied:

“Maybe the world should be held accountable because the world is a very, very vicious place.”

At the core of Trump’s refusal to hold the Saudis to account is his continued broader claim that bad things happen in this vicious, evil world and that he must act to protect U.S. interests — “America First!” — even if it means overlooking such conduct at times or doing other things people find distasteful. I’ve already detailed why the claim that Trump is even acting in U.S. interests in the first place is a lie on this and many other fronts.

But what’s also pivotal to this Trumpian posture is the notion that the question of what happened to Khashoggi is fundamentally unanswerable. If this illusion can be maintained, then Trump can continue to blame the generic “viciousness” of “the world” for it, which both makes it politically easier for Trump to protect the crown prince and makes accountability for this “viciousness” harder to attain — deliberately so. That is the truly reprehensible ethos at the core of Trump’s stance, and it is why the illusion on which it is based must be dispelled. Hopefully effective House Democratic oversight will succeed in doing just that.

Read more:

The Post’s View: Trump’s ‘America First’ means Americans lose

Fred Ryan: Trump’s dangerous message to tyrants: Flash money and get away with murder

Eugene Robinson: Trump is not a champion of human rights. He is a clueless clown.

Karen Attiah: Trump’s defense of Khashoggi’s Saudi murderers will stain him (and America) forever

Max Boot: The only cause our president is willing to serve is his own well-being