After initially taking a soft line on punishing Saudi Arabia for Jamal Khashoggi’s death, President Trump has in recent days toughened his rhetoric somewhat. While not blaming the royal family and while offering somewhat generalized criticisms, Trump has employed words like “cover-up” and “lies” and suggested real repercussions if Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is implicated.
Below is a brief run-through of Trump’s comments on the matter, and here’s a graphic showing what the rest of the Trump administration has been saying.
1. A general “I do not like it”
Oct. 8: “I don’t like hearing about it. Hopefully that will sort itself out. Right now, nobody knows anything about it, but there’s some pretty bad stories going around. I do not like it.”
Six days after Khashoggi disappeared — and before reports that the Turks suspected he was murdered — Trump offered a very general and noncommittal “I do not like it” when asked about the matter.
2. First hint of a soft line: “It’s not a citizen"
Oct. 11: “I don’t like it at all. Now, you know, you don’t have American citizens, but that, in this case, doesn’t matter. I don’t like it. I don’t like it with respect to reporters. It’s a terrible, terrible precedent. We can’t let it happen. And we’re being very tough... He went in and it doesn’t look like he came out. It certainly doesn’t look he’s around.”
Later Oct. 11: “Well, it’s not our country. It’s in Turkey, and it’s not a citizen, as I understand it. But a thing like that shouldn’t happen. It is a reporter with the Washington Post, and it’s — something like that should not be allowed to happen. And we intend to get to the bottom of it.”
This was when Trump began floating reasons perhaps the situation might not warrant an extreme response: He noted that Khashoggi wasn’t an American citizen. Trump added that Khashoggi’s status “doesn’t matter,” but given what would become repeated Trump references to Khashoggi’s lack of citizenship (among other things we’ll get to), it wasn’t difficult to believe Trump was softening the line.
3. More reasons not to act
Later still on Oct. 11: “I know they’re talking about different kinds of sanctions, but they’re spending $110 billion on military equipment. ... That doesn’t help us — not when it comes to jobs and not when it comes to our companies losing out on work. ... Again, this took place in Turkey, and to the best of our knowledge, Khashoggi is not a United States citizen. Is that right?”
For the third time in one day, Trump conspicuously referenced Khashoggi’s lack of U.S. citizenship. But for the first time, he introduced another potential reason not to act: a $110 billion arms deal with the Saudis. The fact that the scope of this deal was badly exaggerated suggested even more that Trump is grasping for excuses.
4. Promoting the Saudi line
Oct. 14: “It’s being looked at very, very strongly, and we would be very upset and angry if that were the case. As of this moment, they deny it. And deny it vehemently. Could it be them? Yes.”
Oct. 15: “I just spoke with the King of Saudi Arabia, who denies any knowledge of what took place with regard to, as he said, his Saudi Arabian citizen. I don’t want to get into his mind — but it sounded to me like maybe these could have been rogue killers. Who knows? And it sounded like he — and also the Crown Prince — had no knowledge.”
Oct. 16: “I think we have to find out what happened first. Here we go again with, you know, you’re guilty until proven innocent. I don’t like that. We just went through that with Justice Kavanaugh and he was innocent all the way as far as I’m concerned.”
Later Oct. 16: “Just spoke with the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia who totally denied any knowledge of what took place in their Turkish Consulate. He was with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo … during the call, and told me that he has already started, and will rapidly expand, a full and complete investigation.”
For three days, Trump rather curiously seemed to amplify and accept the Saudi line — even as Turkey reportedly had damning evidence that the Saudis had murdered Khashoggi. He even floated the idea of “rogue killers” before reports indicated the Saudis would offer exactly that explanation. Trump’s decision to repeatedly cite Saudi denials also suggested he may, in the absence of definitive proof, simply accept them — as he often has with his allies' denials.
5. A gentle turn for the tough
Oct. 17: “We’ll get down to the bottom of it. I hope that the [Saudi] king and the crown prince didn’t know about it. That’s the big factor in my eyes, and I hope they haven’t. ... I’m not giving cover at all. They are an ally. We have other good allies in the Middle East.”
Oct. 18: “We’re waiting for some investigations ... and I think we’ll be making a statement, a very strong statement. It’ll have to be very severe. I mean, it’s bad, bad stuff. But we’ll see what happens.”
For the first time, Trump takes a gentle turn for the tough. Rather than sounding as if he accepted the Saudi denials, he suggested he merely “hopes” the government didn’t do this. He also tellingly noted that Saudi Arabia isn’t the only U.S. ally in the region — perhaps a threat that the United States doesn’t need the Saudis — and suggested a strong condemnation may be in order.
6. Doubting the supposed Turkish evidence
Oct. 19: “Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was never given or shown a Transcript or Video of the Saudi Consulate event. FAKE NEWS!”
At least momentarily, Trump again reverted to doubting the worst allegations against the Saudis, calling reports that the Turkish government had a video of Khashoggi’s murder “FAKE NEWS."
7. “Lies” and “deception” — but from whom?
Oct. 20: “Obviously, there’s been deception, and there’s been lies. Their stories are all over the place.”
Also Oct. 20: “Nobody has told me [Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is] responsible. Nobody has told me he’s not responsible. We haven’t reached that point. I haven’t heard either way. There is a possibility he found out about it afterward. It could be something in the building went badly awry. It could be when that’s he found about it. He could have known they were bringing him back to Saudi Arabia.”
Also Oct. 20: “He’s seen as a person who can keep things under check. I mean that in a positive way.”
Oct. 20 is when things began to change — at least incrementally. In an interview with The Washington Post after the Saudis officially blamed a fistfight gone wrong for Khashoggi’s death, Trump cited “lies” and “deception.” But it also wasn’t clear who had allegedly lied and whether Trump was talking about the Saudi royal family or government. Trump also suggested ways in which the crown prince may not have been culpable and even seemed to praise his authoritarian approach.
8. “I’m not satisfied”
Oct. 22: “We have tremendously talented people that do this stuff very well. They’re coming back tonight, tomorrow. And I will know very soon. And I am not satisfied with what I’ve heard.”
Also Oct. 22 on Sen. Rand Paul’s (R-Ky.) theory that the crown prince knew about it: “Look, Rand has some ideas. I agree with Rand on a lot of things. I don’t want to lose all of that investment that’s being made in our country. I don’t want to lose a million jobs. I don’t want to lose a $110 billion in terms of investment. But it’s really $450 billion if you include other than military. So that’s very important. But we’re going to get to the bottom of it.”
Trump even more clearly seemed to question the Saudi explanation. But again, he cast doubt on the idea that the scandal reached up to the crown prince and yet again inflated the U.S. financial interest in a relationship with the Saudis.
9. “Worst cover-up ever”
Oct. 23: “Certainly the location was inappropriate, but doing it in the first place was the biggest mistake. Shouldn’t have ever been done. And, you know, I know you guys find this hard to believe I’m saying, but the fact is that — the fact that it was a reporter is terrible. It should have never been done. No, it shouldn’t have even been in the thought process. But then once it was done it was obviously — it was done horribly and it was — it certainly seems to have been covered up horribly.”
Oct. 23: “They had a very bad original concept. It was carried out poorly. And the cover-up was one of the worst in the history of cover-ups. Very simple. Bad deal. Should have never been thought of. Somebody really messed up. And they had the worst cover-up ever. And where it should have stopped is at the deal standpoint, where they thought about it. Because whoever thought of that idea I think is in big trouble, and they should be in big trouble. Okay?”
Also Oct. 23 on whether the crown prince should step down if he was involved: ″So they’re running their own country, and that’s a determination for them to make. Certainly it would be a very bad thing in terms of relationship. It would take a while to rebuild."
In an interview with the Wall Street Journal and elsewhere, Trump wielded the term “cover-up” repeatedly — clearly and significantly suggesting Saudi foul play. Yet again, though, it wasn’t directly blaming anybody high up in the Saudi government. Those in the consulate rather clearly engaged in a cover-up, after all, and Trump could have just been talking about them.
Trump also notably made pretty clear that any role by the crown prince would be punished harshly — while punting on whether he should be forced to step down if he was responsible.