The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Mike Pompeo’s revolting embrace of MBS after the Khashoggi murder

Former secretary of state Mike Pompeo in Manchester, N.H., on Sept. 20. (Steven Senne/AP)
3 min

Former secretary of state Mike Pompeo comes out spitting nails in his new book, which is presumably a prelude to a run for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination. But his commentary on the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a Post contributing columnist, reveals much more about Mr. Pompeo than his critics. It shows that, rather than acting as a principled leader of U.S. diplomacy, Mr. Pompeo coddled the person who sent the Khashoggi hit squad.

Mr. Khashoggi was suffocated and dismembered with a bone saw inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2, 2018. The 15 killers included seven members of the elite personal protective detail of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, known as MBS, who, according to the U.S. intelligence community, “approved an operation” to “capture or kill” Khashoggi. His body has never been found.

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Opinions coverage of Jamal Khashoggi’s murder
Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist and Post contributing columnist since 2017, was killed in Istanbul at the consulate of Saudi Arabia in 2018. According to a U.S. intelligence assessment, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman approved an operation to capture or kill him.
Fred Hiatt, The Post’s editorial page editor at the time, called it “a monstrous and unfathomable act.” He wrote a column titled “Why bring a bonesaw to a kidnapping, Your Highness?
Khashoggi’s columns for The Post described Saudi Arabia under Mohammed bin Salman, calling it “unbearable” and comparing him to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
President Biden, after vowing on the campaign trail to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah,” visited the country in July 2022. Biden defended the trip in a guest opinion for The Post. Washington Post Publisher Fred Ryan wrote that Biden’s trip showed American values are negotiable.
Biden greeted Mohammed bin Salman with a fist bump, which columnist Karen Attiah called “a crass betrayal.” Attiah edited Khashoggi’s columns for The Post.


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The murder was at least partly retribution against Khashoggi for commentaries in The Post in which he had called for a freer Arab world and a more open and tolerant Saudi Arabia — and in which he criticized MBS’s dictatorial ways. President Donald Trump and his secretary of state reacted to the murder by protecting the Saudi despot, refusing to impose serious penalties against the kingdom, ignoring a congressional resolution calling for sanctions, and seeking to refurbish MBS’s standing. Mr. Pompeo makes no secret of his admiration, saying MBS is “leading the greatest cultural reform in the kingdom’s history” and is “a truly historic figure on the world stage.”

Mr. Pompeo reveals that, in private, he and Mr. Trump felt they rescued the crown prince from disrepute. He recalls that the then-president asked him to go to Saudi Arabia, and that he was the first Western official to see MBS since Khashoggi’s murder. “In some ways I think the president was envious that I was the one who gave the middle finger to The Washington Post, the New York Times and the other bed-wetters who didn’t have a grip on reality,” Mr. Pompeo writes. “He said, ‘Hey Mike, go and have a good time. Tell him he owes us.’”

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This is the language of a street tough, not the leader of a nation based on rule of law. Mr. Pompeo offers the lame and ignorant excuse that the Middle East is a tough neighborhood. “The episode was ugly, but it wasn’t surprising — not to me anyway,” he writes of the killing, because “this kind of ruthlessness was all too routine in this part of the world.” Mr. Pompeo salutes Mr. Trump’s decision not to punish the crown prince, saying “it wasn’t a close call.” He then goes on to smear the murdered Khashoggi as an “activist” and not a journalist, claiming he “had supported the losing team in a recent fight for the throne.”

Khashoggi’s journalism, including his criticism of the Saudi despot, was in the best tradition of American values of free expression, shining a light on dark corners of the world. Mr. Pompeo reveals that he is estranged from these principles.

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Members of the Editorial Board and areas of focus: Opinion Editor David Shipley; Deputy Opinion Editor Karen Tumulty; Associate Opinion Editor Stephen Stromberg (national politics and policy, legal affairs, energy, the environment, health care); Lee Hockstader (European affairs, based in Paris); David E. Hoffman (global public health); James Hohmann (domestic policy and electoral politics, including the White House, Congress and governors); Charles Lane (foreign affairs, national security, international economics); Heather Long (economics); Associate Editor Ruth Marcus; and Molly Roberts (technology and society).