Corey A. Stewart’s impulse to utter provocative and evidence-free slurs reached new heights Friday when the Republican nominee for Senate from Virginia disparaged slain Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi on national television.
In an interview on CNN, Stewart described Khashoggi, a Washington Post contributing columnist who lived in Northern Virginia before he was killed, as a “mystery man” tied to the Muslim Brotherhood and Osama bin Laden.
His remarks to Anderson Cooper trashing Khashoggi — who Turkish officials say was killed and dismembered this month by a team of Saudi assassins inside the Saudi Consulate in Turkey — marked his latest attempt to rally hardcore Republicans in his uphill battle against Sen. Tim Kaine (D). Polls show Kaine leading Stewart by as much as 20 points.
“He’s kind of a mystery man. . . . The thing is that he’s kind of a mystery guy,” Stewart said of Khashoggi on Cooper’s nightly show. “Well, I mean, you know, there’s a lot of reports out there that he was connected to the Muslim Brotherhood, reports that he was connected to Osama bin Laden and others. I don’t know if they’re true.”
With his latest conjectures on national television, Stewart appears to be moving in lockstep with extremist Republicans and conservative commentators engaging in a whisper campaign to smear Khashoggi and insulate President Trump from global rebuke. In the fallout of Khashoggi’s killing, Trump has repeatedly said he does not want the journalist’s death to disrupt the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia, especially the sale of billions of dollars in weapons made by American defense contractors.
But instead of whispering, Stewart amplified many of these sentiments on CNN.
“I think the bigger question though is, you know, does the United States jeopardize the relationship with Saudi Arabia over this one single human rights violation,” he said. “I think that would be a tremendous mistake to the United States.”
Stewart kept calling Khashoggi a “mystery man” or “mystery guy” during the interview, but when Cooper pressed him for evidence, Stewart appeared to fumble.
“Well, I mean, look, if you wanted somebody who is an expert on who he was, you know, I’m not the right guy,” Stewart said.
Khashoggi was a frequent critic of Saudi Arabia’s regime and lived in the U.S. under self-imposed exile. He wrote opinion columns for The Washington Post, which were posted online and have been translated into Arabic. Many years ago, Khashoggi was aligned with Islamist movements, but in recent years, he gravitated his outlook to a more secular, Western system of beliefs. He did know bin Laden in the 1980s and 1990s, but only as a journalist working a source.
On Oct. 2, Khashoggi went inside the Saudi Consulate in Turkey to pick up papers for his pending marriage to a Turkish woman. But he never emerged from the building.
Turkish investigators have concluded Khashoggi was intentionally killed by a group of Saudi operatives who dismembered him. According to a Post article on Friday, CIA officials have listened to an audio recording that Turkey says proves Khashoggi was cut into pieces by a Saudi team.
But the Saudi government, which finally acknowledged on Saturday that he’d been killed, offered a different story — one that is widely doubted: The kingdom said Khashoggi died during a fistfight. Five top Saudi officials were fired and 18 other Saudis were arrested as part of the kingdom’s probe.
Stewart said the Saudis have been “been torturing, mutilating their citizens, as have other regimes,” but it would be a mistake for the United States to break with that government.
“It is one of America’s closest allies,” he said. “They have a lot of human rights abuses. But I think it would be a tremendous mistake to undermine or to rattle the Saudi regime when it is one of the few absolutely pro-American regimes in the Middle East.”
When asked about Stewart’s comments on Saturday, Kaine ridiculed his rival.
“So that makes it okay to kill him in a consulate as a journalist living in Virginia and saw his body up?” Kaine said. “I mean, the attempt by some people on the right to minimize the horrific nature of this just makes me sick to my stomach. This was a Virginian, working journalist who was entitled to safe haven in a consulate. . . . What the current administration and their enablers are doing in both excusing the inexcusable but also trying to tear down the reputation of a journalist is just gonna make me work twice as hard between now and Election Day.”
Stewart’s speculative commentary on CNN is just the latest example of his willingness to stoke outrage and make allegations without evidence. During his campaign against Kaine, he falsely claimed that his competitor is in league with the antifa, or antifascist, movement and suggested, without proof, that Kaine has been accused of sexual harassment.
On Saturday, Stewart appeared to double down. He attacked Kaine for his rival’s comments criticizing Saudi Arabia by tweeting, “Once again Tim Kaine focuses on the concerns of a foreign ‘resident’ over his own Virginia citizens,” Stewart wrote. “Isn’t it time we had a Senator who truly cared about American citizens FIRST!”
Shortly afterward, Stewart deleted the tweet.