This post has been updated.
It has been abundantly clear from day one that President Trump does not want to blame Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s death. Trump has even said as much: “I hope that the king and the crown prince didn’t know about it,” he said Oct. 17. Even as Trump has occasionally offered tough words, none of it pointed to the top, and most everything Trump has said has offered an alternative narrative that doesn’t implicate Mohammed.
That wishful thinking now meets reality, but Trump appears primed to doubt his own intelligence community and/or fail to act upon its conclusions on an issue of huge international import.
The Washington Post reported late Friday that the CIA now has high confidence that Mohammed personally ordered the killing of Khashoggi, a Washington Post contributing columnist and former ally of the Saudi royal family who became a critic. This contradicts the official Saudi explanation, which is that Mohammed’s deputies merely ordered the repatriation of Khashoggi and the team sent to Istanbul instead killed him.
The situation — and Trump’s position in it — now carries eerie parallels to the Russia investigation. The U.S. intelligence community concluded Russia interfered in the U.S. election and favored Trump, but Trump has spent most of his presidency publicly casting doubt on this and resisting punitive measures. His administration has still punished Russia. But Trump, whose personal interest in doubting Russian interference is clear (he feels it undermines his 2016 election win), has frequently been a less-than-willing participant.
And just like then, The Post is reporting Trump remains skeptical of the finding that the prince was responsible — despite the evidence:
President Trump has resisted pinning the blame for the killing on Mohammed, who enjoys a close relationship with Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser. Privately, aides said, Trump has been shown evidence of the prince’s involvement but remains skeptical that Mohammed ordered the killing.
The president has also asked CIA and State Department officials where Khashoggi’s body is and has grown frustrated that they have not been able to provide an answer. The CIA does not know the location of Khashoggi’s remains, according to the people familiar with the agency’s assessment.
Trump said Saturday that he hadn’t been briefed on the matter yet and that he would be speaking with the CIA. But aides say he’s seen evidence implicating Mohammed and looked for ways to avoid pinning the blame on him.
As with Russia, Trump’s motivation to disbelieve his intelligence community is apparent: The Saudis are an important strategic ally; his son-in-law Jared Kushner is close to Mohammed; and Trump has long-standing business ties with Saudis. And this week was full of signs that Trump’s administration isn’t prepared to hold Mohammed accountable — signs that are even starker now that we know what Trump has been told behind the scenes.
The Treasury Department on Thursday announced sanctions against 17 Saudis for Khashoggi’s killing. Among them is Mohammed’s senior aide, Saud al-Qahtani. But while the statement implicates Qahtani in what happened to Khashoggi, it isn’t clear on whether he is believed to have ordered or approved the killing. It uses somewhat vague language as to which of the 17 is accused of what, specifically:
- The Treasury Department’s release said the 17 men were being sanctioned “for having a role in the killing of Jamal Khashoggi.” “Having a role in” doesn’t exactly indicate whether any of them individually plotted or carried out the killing.
- In a quote, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin added the men “were involved in the abhorrent killing of Jamal Khashoggi” — similar to the language above — and they “targeted and brutally killed” him, although he didn’t differentiate between who targeted him and who killed him.
- It said Qahtani “was part of the planning and execution of the operation that led to the killing of Mr. Khashoggi.” The key words there are “that led to.” That sentence also seemed to separate the person from the eventual outcome.
Almost all of this fits with the Saudi version of events. On Thursday, a Saudi prosecutor announced indictments of 11 unnamed people, five of whom could face the death penalty. The prosecutor also said Qahtani was involved but only in a plan to repatriate Khashoggi — that is, bring him from Istanbul to Saudi Arabia. The language above from the Treasury Department could be consistent with Qahtani planning a repatriation operation that eventually resulted in Khashoggi’s killing, without his approval. If the effort doesn’t necessarily reach up to someone so close to Mohammed, that means he remains insulated.
NBC News reported Thursday that the Trump administration looked into the possibility of extraditing exiled Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen, who has been in Pennsylvania for two decades and is accused by the Turkish government of plotting a failed 2016 coup. The reasoning, per NBC, is the U.S. government wanted to “placate” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who had been accusing Saudi Arabia of a deliberate plot to kill Khashoggi, and “persuade Erdogan to ease pressure on the Saudi government.”
Why would the administration feel the need to placate Erdogan over a killing allegedly committed by the Saudis? The logical conclusion is they wanted to cover for their allies in the Saudi government — a goal that would be consistent with all of Trump’s rhetoric. But that also means the truth about what happened to Khashoggi — about which Turkey, it turns out, has been pretty accurate — would be taking a back seat.
The question now is just how much Trump cares about the truth that his intelligence community has determined.