I wrote Friday that President Trump’s rhetoric about Jamal Khashoggi’s disappearance suggested that he wasn’t terribly inclined to get tough on Saudi Arabia — even if Saudi Arabia were indeed responsible. Trump had noted repeatedly that Khashoggi wasn’t an American citizen and suggested that both sanctions and scaling back an arms deal would hurt Americans. Trump has spoken in broad terms about punishing Saudi Arabia, but he’s also laying a clear pretext for not doing much of anything. This would hurt the United States, you could infer from Trump’s language, and this isn’t even about an American.
And now Trump has issued his most telling tell: repeatedly noting that Saudi Arabia denies any role in Khashoggi’s disappearance.
Twice in recent days, Trump has made a point to emphasize that the Saudis claim complete innocence.
“It’s being looked at very, very strongly, and we would be very upset and angry if that were the case,” Trump told CBS News’s “60 Minutes” in an interview that aired Sunday night, referring to the potential Saudi role in the disappearance. “As of this moment, they deny it. And deny it vehemently. Could it be them? Yes.”
After some crosstalk with Lesley Stahl, Trump said it again: “They deny it. They deny it every way you can imagine.”
The morning after the interview aired, Trump again pointed out Saudi Arabia’s denial, while slipping in yet again that Khashoggi isn’t an American citizen.
“Just spoke to the King of Saudi Arabia who denies any knowledge of whatever may have happened ‘to our Saudi Arabian citizen,’ ” Trump tweeted.
The White House has said that Trump is merely relaying Saudi Arabia’s denials. But to accept that, you would have to be willfully blind to history.
Over and over again, Trump has used supposedly ironclad denials to find a way to believe things he wants to believe — or at least avoid punitive actions.
He has done it many times with Vladimir Putin’s denials of Russian interference in the 2016 election:
- “I have great confidence in my intelligence people, but I will tell you that president Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today.”
- “I have President Putin. He just said it is not Russia. I will say this: I do not see any reason it would be.” (The White House later claimed Trump meant to say “wouldn’t be.”)
- "He said he didn’t meddle. I asked him again. You can only ask so many times. I just asked him again. He said he absolutely did not meddle in our election. He did not do what they are saying he did.”
- “I strongly pressed President Putin twice about Russian meddling in our election. He vehemently denied it. I’ve already given my opinion.”
- “But he says, ‘I didn’t do that.’ I think he is very insulted by it, which is not a good thing for our country."
- “I think that he is very, very strong in the fact that he didn’t do it.”
Trump did it with the sexual misconduct allegations against Roy Moore in the U.S. Senate race in Alabama:
- “He denies it. Look, he denies it. If you look at all the things that have happened over the last 48 hours, he totally denies it. He says it didn’t happen. And look, you have to look at him also.”
- “Let me just tell you: Roy Moore denies it. That’s all I can say. He denies it. And, by the way, he totally denies it.”
And the abuse allegations against former senior White House aide Rob Porter:
- “He says he’s innocent, and I think you have to remember that. He said very strongly yesterday that he’s innocent, but you’ll have to talk to him about that.”
And allegations against Paul Manafort, a former Trump campaign manager:
And, most recently, the White House cited Brett M. Kavanaugh’s denial in defending him during the fight to confirm him as a Supreme Court justice:
- “On Friday, Judge Kavanaugh ‘categorically and unequivocally’ denied this allegation. This has not changed. Judge Kavanaugh and the White House both stand by that statement.”
In each of these cases, Trump made it abundantly clear where he stood. He wanted Moore elected and Kavanaugh confirmed to the Supreme Court. Trump wanted to believe Manafort was innocent, because that was (and now is, in light of Manafort’s decision to flip) a major liability for him. He didn’t want to fire Porter, and he has even reportedly mused about bringing him back.
Trump may not have always gotten what he wanted, but his reliance upon these denials — and repeated allusions to just how “strong,” “total” and absolute they were — betrayed his true feelings. It was his way of injecting enough plausible deniability into a matter to give him an excuse to stand by his man. And without fail, he did.
Nowhere has this been as pronounced as it has with Putin. On at least half a dozen occasions, Trump has referred to the strength of Putin’s denials. Trump has intermittently been forced to say that he believes his own intelligence community’s conclusions about Russian election interference, but he always reverts to casting doubt about that. He even did it again Sunday night.
And the Russia example is applicable to the Khashoggi situation in another way. While Trump has clearly retained doubts about Russian interference, he has also taken actions that are pretty tough on Russia. He signed a sanctions bill. He expelled Russian diplomats over former double agent Sergei Skripal’s poisoning in Britain.
But those were actions that people around Trump, Congress and the political realities of the situations pressed him to take. Trump has shown in just about each case that he didn’t like that he had to get tough with Russia but was forced to do it anyway. He didn’t want to sign off on the sanctions and said so publicly, but he risked the embarrassment of having a veto overridden. He even reportedly resisted retaliating over Skripal’s poisoning.
This, ultimately, may be what happens with Khashoggi, depending on pressure from his aides, Congress and the international community. The weight of the situation could just be that severe.
For now, though, Trump is signaling that he’s going to resist that — at the least.