The world leaders’ embrace of Mohammed was a clear signal that the young prince, who the CIA, U.S. allies and a United Nations investigator say is responsible for the savage killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, was being welcomed back, if reluctantly, into the community of nations. And it wouldn’t have been possible without the support of Trump and his secretary of State, Mike Pompeo.
Wednesday will mark one year since Khashoggi, a Washington Post contributing columnist, was killed and dismembered by Saudi agents in that country’s consulate in Istanbul. Mohammed, who rose to power promising transformational social and economic change in one of the world’s most strategically important countries, and who was praised by prominent writers and American executives as heralding a bright future for Saudi Arabia, quickly became a pariah.
Trump and Pompeo, however, never distanced themselves. They emphasized the kingdom’s strategic importance.
For Trump, the value of that relationship boiled down to dollars. He has never sugarcoated the grisly nature of the slain columnist’s death. But he has repeatedly described the Middle East as a “vicious” place, excusing Khashoggi’s death as an unfortunate event not worth the cost of abandoning a lucrative market.
“I’m not like a fool that says, ‘We don’t want to do business with them,’ ” Trump told NBC News in July. “And by the way, if they don’t do business with us, you know what they do? They’ll do business with the Russians or with the Chinese.”
Pompeo, who has not been so blunt, has made public promises that the United States would investigate Khashoggi’s death and hold all responsible parties accountable. After a meeting with the Saudi king and crown prince in January, Pompeo said they “reiterated their commitment to achieve the objective, the expectations we set for them.”
Those promises remain unfulfilled.
“To all appearances, Pompeo’s strategy right from the beginning has been to salvage the U.S.-Saudi relationship and rehabilitate Mohammed bin Salman’s reputation in Washington as a valuable ally against Iran,” said David Ottaway, an expert on the Persian Gulf at the Wilson Center think tank in Washington.
“U.S. and Saudi officials have been playing the same game of hoping the controversy over Jamal’s murder will die with time or be overtaken by other more immediate events, like the brazen Iranian drone-and-missile attack on Saudi oil facilities” this month, Ottaway said. In response to those attacks, which U.S. officials say emanated from Iran, Trump ordered U.S. troops to defend Saudi oil fields.
Pompeo has arguably succeeded in his goal of stabilizing the U.S.-Saudi relationship and bringing Mohammed back into the fold. Headlines about Khashoggi’s killing have faded. A trial of Saudi officials, called a mockery of justice by observers, carries on behind closed doors.
Mohammed himself has gradually become more voluble. Speaking off camera to PBS's Frontline in December, he took responsibility for the killing as the leader of his country but made no admission about his suspected role.
"I get all the responsibility, because it happened under my watch," Mohammed said. The documentary was released online Saturday and will be broadcast Tuesday.
On Sunday night, an interview with Mohammed is set to air on “60 Minutes.”
State Department officials, all of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the U.S. handling of the journalist’s killing, defended Pompeo by pointing to the visa restrictions he ordered last year on 21 individuals connected to Khashoggi’s slaying and, as one official said, the secretary’s push for “a fair and transparent judicial process without undue delay.”
The visa restrictions ensure that the 21 individuals may not travel to the United States, a punishment lampooned by critics as pointless given the unlikelihood that any of the suspects would risk doing so.
Neither the Saudi government nor the White House responded to requests for comment.
A Saudi dissident living in the United States who spoke on the condition of anonymity, citing a fear of retaliation, said the Saudi government weathered the furor over Khashoggi’s killing because the Trump administration stood by Mohammed.
“I think they got away with murder,” the dissident said.
A trial held in secret
The Trump administration has done little to shed light on Saudi Arabia’s opaque system of justice. One year after Khashoggi’s death, not a single Saudi official has been found guilty or punished.
A trial of 11 Saudi officials, which began in early January, drags on. Journalists and the public have been barred. Foreign diplomats have been allowed to attend, on the condition that they do not disclose details from the proceedings. They include representatives from the United States and other U.N. Security Council members, along with Turkey, according to Saudi officials.
The Saudi government has not named the defendants. Agnes Callamard, a human rights expert at the United Nations, obtained a list from government sources that included Maher Mutreb, a Saudi intelligence officer, Salah al-Tubaigy, an autopsy specialist who is accused of dismembering Khashoggi’s body, and Ahmed al-Assiri, the former deputy chief of Saudi Arabia’s intelligence agency. Five of the defendants, including Mutreb and Tubaigy, are said to be facing the death penalty, according to Callamard’s report on Khashoggi’s killing, which was released in June.
But Saud al-Qahtani, a former top aide to Mohammed who is accused of having helped plan the operation that led to Khashoggi’s killing and assuring the plot’s participants that the journalist was a great threat to the kingdom’s national security, is not a defendant in the trial, according to Callamard and other people familiar with the proceedings. The Saudi government has refused to answer questions about his status or whereabouts since announcing he had been fired from his job as the crown prince’s media adviser.
His exclusion has led to accusations that the Saudi government is prosecuting lower-level enforcers to placate the kingdom’s international detractors. “The trial underway in Saudi Arabia will not deliver credible accountability,” Callamard wrote in her report.
The Trump administration portrays Khashoggi’s killing as a crime that hasn’t been solved.
“We continue the search for every fact and detail we can that might broaden our knowledge of those involved and their role in this brutal act,” the State Department official said.
But the CIA has not changed its assessment from November that Mohammed ordered Khashoggi’s killing, according to two U.S. officials. That assessment, first reported by The Washington Post, is the U.S. government’s most definitive link between Mohammed and the murder. At the time the assessment was completed, Trump said erroneously that the CIA had not reached that conclusion, and he implied that the matter was still under investigation.
Long before Khashoggi’s death, intelligence officials had been worried about Mohammed’s rapid ascent in Saudi leadership. Before he became the crown prince and heir to the throne, they saw him as a direct threat to Mohammed bin Nayef, who ran the Saudi Interior Ministry and was an exceptionally close partner to the CIA and U.S. counterterrorism officials.
Some intelligence officials judged Mohammed bin Salman as a threat to their connections to the Saudi power structure and doubted he would act in accordance with U.S. interests. They saw Mohammed as undisciplined and tempestuous, and they believed he had an overly simplistic view of power dynamics in the Middle East.
“He has an elevator speech, and it all comes down to Iran as the source of all problems,” one U.S. intelligence official said before Mohammed became the crown prince. This official, echoing the concerns of other observers of Saudi-U.S. relations, worried Mohammed would lead astray Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser, who was put in charge of devising a Middle East peace strategy.
Mohammed and Kushner have had private meetings that alarmed U.S. officials. There is no known record of their discussions, which diminished the U.S. side’s understanding of whether Mohammed may have tried to influence Kushner and U.S. policy, according to officials familiar with the matter.
Since then, some officials believe their fears have been proved well-founded. The United States is locked in a precariously tense standoff with Iran, Saudi Arabia’s main enemy, and Mohammed continues a bloody war in Yemen that has caused humanitarian suffering of historic proportions.
Trump's support comes at a price
The Trump administration has helped rehabilitate Mohammed on the world stage. But that support has come with a political price.
Following Khashoggi’s killing, Republicans in Congress broke with the administration over U.S. support for the Saudi war in Yemen.
In April, Trump was forced to veto a bipartisan resolution to force an end to U.S. military involvement. It was a rare rebuke from Republicans who have stood by Trump through a seemingly endless stream of controversies.
“The backlash [against Saudi Arabia] was well underway,” said Bruce Riedel, a former CIA official and longtime observer of U.S.-Saudi relations. Lawmakers already had misgivings about the war in Yemen and recoiled at some of Mohammed’s other strong-arm campaigns, including a blockade of Qatar, a key U.S. ally, and a shakedown of his political rivals in Riyadh under the guise of an anti-corruption campaign.
But Khashoggi’s killing broke the dam. “I think [Trump] wouldn’t be facing this strong opposition on the Hill without the Khashoggi affair,” Riedel said. A massive defense spending bill pending in Congress would restrict U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia and require the administration to make a public report about Khashoggi’s death. If those provisions remain, Trump could be faced with having to veto military spending, one of his key policy priorities, to stand with Mohammed.
While in the short-term Mohammed appears ready to reemerge, the long-term prospects for the kingdom are shaky, and his opponents may be looking forward to that day. “Saudi Arabia is no longer an American national cause for all parties, but is now linked with Trump’s support only,” the Saudi dissident said. “So as soon as Trump loses or his time ends, it seems that the pressure on Saudi will be severe.”
Meanwhile, the memory of Khashoggi has not faded. His killing remains a rallying cry for human rights activists. His story is the subject of continuing fascination by journalists and filmmakers. Trump may want to forget about Khashoggi, but the world has not.
“His ghost,” Riedel said, “haunts Saudi Arabia to this day.”
Correction: A previous version of this story inaccurately characterized Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's interview with PBS's Frontline as being part of a recent public relations tour. The story has been revised to indicate that the off-camera interview took place last December and that the program is now available online.
Kareem Fahim in Istanbul and Sarah Dadouch in Beirut contributed to this report.