On Monday, Trump appeared to preview the Saudi line that “rogue killers” could be responsible for Khashoggi’s death. By midafternoon, reports indicated that the Saudis may indeed soon admit Khashoggi was killed but would blame it on a botched interrogation. (The reasoning there would ostensibly be that this could help Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman escape culpability.)
On Tuesday, Trump seemed to scale back the Saudis' denial yet again. After saying Monday that King Salman has issued a “flat denial,” Trump updated that statement to say on Twitter that Salman’s son, the crown prince, had “totally denied any knowledge of what took place in their Turkish Consulate.” The key words in that denial would seem to be “any knowledge of what took place.” That doesn’t mean the Saudis are denying Khashoggi was killed; it just means the crown prince was saying they didn’t order or approve it.
Then to drive the point home, Trump drew the same line in an interview with Fox News. He said directly that U.S. punishment “depends [on] whether or not the king or the crown prince knew about it.”
The Post’s Greg Miller spotted the trend:
Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) even called it Monday before reports indicated a potentially scaled-back Saudi denial:
It will be easy for Trump to dismiss such criticisms by arguing that he’s merely passing along what he was told by Salman and the crown prince. But it seems an odd coincidence that Trump has, twice in two days, passed along comments that seem tailored to an eventual admission that this was an accidental killing. That’s not something the Saudi government has said officially, but it seems to be the explanation Trump has warmed to.
There are a few potential reasons for that. It could be because the Saudis skillfully tempted Trump to parrot their line. It could be because they expressly told him what he should pass along and he dutifully did it. Or it could be because Trump is hearing what he wants to hear and believing what he wants to believe. Trump rather clearly doesn’t want to shake up the relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia, either through new sanctions or scaling back an arms deal. He has also repeatedly noted that Khashoggi isn’t a U.S. citizen, which appears indicative of a softer potential punishment.
But regardless of which of the three options it is, it’s worth asking why the president of the United States is saying the exact things the Saudis would like him to say — at a time when they are supposed to be on the defensive over the potential killing of a journalist for a U.S. newspaper.