PRESIDENT TRUMP on Tuesday confirmed what his administration has been signaling all along: It will stand behind Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman even if he ordered the brutal murder and dismemberment of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. In a crude statement punctuated with exclamation points, Mr. Trump sidestepped a CIA finding that the crown prince was behind the killing; casually slandered Mr. Khashoggi, who was one of the Arab world’s most distinguished journalists; and repeated gross falsehoods and exaggerations about the benefits of the U.S. alliance with the kingdom. Mr. Trump has betrayed American values in service to what already was a bad bet on the 33-year-old prince.
As with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s interference in the 2016 election, Mr. Trump is justifying his affinity for a brutal and reckless leader by disregarding the findings of the U.S. intelligence community. The Post reported Friday that the CIA has concluded with “high confidence” — a rating it does not apply lightly — that Mohammed bin Salman ordered the murder of Mr. Khashoggi, who while living in self-imposed exile in Virginia, wrote columns for The Post that were moderately critical of the crown prince.
Mr. Trump’s response is to grudgingly acknowledge that “it could very well be that the Crown Prince had knowledge of this tragic event” before adding “maybe he did and maybe he didn’t!” He declares the truth unknowable and thus irrelevant: “We may never know all of the facts surrounding the murder.”
In fact, the truth about Mr. Khashoggi’s death is not only knowable but largely known. Audio recordings in the CIA’s possession record his actual killing as well as phone calls from the hit team to Mohammed bin Salman’s close aides. Five members of the team have been identified as probable members of the crown prince’s personal security team.
While discounting these facts, Mr. Trump bases his continued backing for the regime on false claims, including his thoroughly debunked boast that Saudi Arabia will “spend and invest $450 billion” in the United States. He says the kingdom has “been very responsive to my requests to keeping oil prices at reasonable levels,” though Riyadh is reportedly preparing to cut production to raise prices.
Worst of all, Mr. Trump libels Mr. Khashoggi, saying that “representatives of Saudi Arabia” had called him an “enemy of the state” and a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. The crown prince did make those allegations in a phone call to the White House — but the regime itself was so embarrassed when The Post reported on the call that it denied making them. Mr. Khashoggi’s family has confirmed that he was not a member of the Brotherhood.
Mr. Trump concluded his statement by inviting Congress “to go in a different direction.” As in the Russia case, it must do so. Bipartisan legislation mandating sanctions for all those implicated in Mr. Khashoggi’s death is pending in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) last week gave us a statement indicating he wanted to know “what more would be done” by the administration before Congress responded. Now he knows. If Mohammed bin Salman is to be held accountable, as Mr. Corker said he must, the committee must act. The alternative is a world where dictators know they can murder their critics and suffer no consequences.