For the better part of the last week, President Trump has been building a Saudi-friendly narrative about journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s disappearance. He suggested it was “rogue killers” after Saudi King Salman planted that seed in his head. He also rather helpfully and uncritically scaled back the Saudis' denials, noting that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman denied “knowledge” of what happened — though perhaps not necessarily that it happened, as the Saudis initially denied.
This all tracks with reports suggesting the Saudis would admit Khashoggi, a Washington Post contributing columnist, was indeed killed in their consulate, but would say it was something of a botched interrogation that wasn’t ordered by the Saudi royal family.
But now Trump’s preferred narrative is looking less and less viable.
The Saudis have been conspicuously quiet about their version of events — almost as though they’re waiting to see what evidence emerges before deciding what they must admit to. But the evidence at hand increasingly points away from the “rogue killers” theory.
As The Washington Post is now reporting, 11 of the 15 Saudis that the Turkish government says were sent to the consulate in Istanbul as part of a hit squad to kill Khashoggi have ties to the Saudi security services. One of them, Khalid Aedh Alotaibi, even came to Washington ahead of the crown prince’s cross-country tour of the United States earlier this year.
Alotaibi and eight others identified as suspects by Turkish officials appear to have profiles on MenoM3ay — a phone directory app popular in the Arab world — identifying themselves as members of the Saudi security forces, with some claiming to be members of the Royal Guard.
In one instance, Alotaibi identified himself with a symbol for the Royal Guard. In another, someone else saved him in their contacts with the same symbol for the security force, which is charged with protecting the royal family.
Repeated attempts to contact Alotaibi using the phone number listed in the app were unsuccessful.
Five of the eight others are repeatedly identified in the app as either officers in the Royal Guard or employees of the royal palace.
Two of the Saudis on the list, Naif Hassan S. Alarifi and Saif Saad Q. Alqahtani, are repeatedly identified in the app as even closer to the royal family — specifically as employees of the “Crown Prince office.”
Not all of these employment situations could be verified (the Saudis haven’t exactly been transparent here), but the more closely these men are linked to the Saudi royal family, the more difficult it is to believe they were freelancing. It’s also difficult to believe someone in those positions would be so careless as to inadvertently kill Khashoggi. The Saudi government isn’t renowned for tolerating insubordination.
And now another piece of evidence makes it even more difficult to believe this wasn’t an ordered and orchestrated hit: the audiotapes the Turkish government allegedly has. The reported existence of the tapes has cropped up before, but the New York Times provided additional details Wednesday (including some graphic ones):
His killers were waiting when Jamal Khashoggi walked into the Saudi consulate in Istanbul two weeks ago. They severed his fingers during an interrogation and later beheaded and dismembered him, according to details from audio recordings published in the Turkish news media on Wednesday.
It was all over within a few minutes, the recordings suggested.
A senior Turkish official confirmed the details that were published in the pro-government daily newspaper Yeni Safak.
As they cut off Mr. Khashoggi’s head and dismembered his body, a doctor of forensics who had been brought along for the dissection and disposal had some advice for the others, according to the senior Turkish official.
Listen to music, he told them, as he put on headphones himself. That was what he did to ease the tension when doing such work, the official said, describing the contents of the audio recording.
These tapes have not been reviewed or had their authenticity verified by the media, and it’s not clear that U.S. officials have them and have vetted them. All we know is the Turkish government has told U.S. officials they have them.
But if this is an accurate portrayal of what occurred, it’s almost impossible to believe this wasn’t a deliberate hit. And when you combine it with the apparent closeness of the men involved to the Saudi royal family, it would become increasingly difficult to believe this was anything but a sanctioned execution.
Trump rather plainly does not want to believe or say the Saudis did this on purpose, because it would create problems in doing business with them. He has downplayed the idea of new sanctions or of scaling back an arms deal. He has repeatedly emphasized that Khashoggi isn’t an American citizen. Trump even likened the need for due process for the crown prince to sexual misconduct allegations against Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh. Asked Wednesday whether he would walk away from the Saudis, Trump said, “No, I don’t want to do that.”
But as the debate over U.S.-Russia relations has shown, just because Trump is extremely resistant to getting tough on human rights abusers doesn’t mean it won’t happen. Sometimes the circumstances can’t be ignored and can be spun only so much. Giving the Saudis a pass requires it to be plausible that the royal family didn’t order or sanction a hit.
That’s becoming less and less plausible a case for Trump to make.