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Trump broke his word on Jamal Khashoggi — plain and simple

After initially warning of "severe punishment" for the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, President Trump issued a statement defending Saudi Arabia. (Video: JM Rieger/The Washington Post)
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President Trump’s statement giving Saudi Arabia’s royal family a pass for the slaying of Jamal Khashoggi was remarkable. The logic he used was often nonsensical, the numbers he used were fictional, and he ignored legitimate arguments in favor of getting tough.

But equally problematic is this: He went back on his word.

Trump spent most of the weeks after Khashoggi’s disappearance making the case for a tempered response and even promoting narratives that didn’t implicate Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman or King Salman. Yet occasionally when he granted the premise that they might have been involved, he suggested the punishment would be severe.

“It’s a terrible, terrible precedent,” he said Oct. 11. “We can’t let it happen. And we’re being very tough.”

In an Oct. 14 interview with “60 Minutes,” he was asked about the prospect of Mohammed having ordered the killing. “It’s being looked at very, very strongly, and we would be very upset and angry if that were the case.”

Then on 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.”

He went even stronger Oct. 23: “Whoever thought of that idea, I think, is in big trouble. And they should be in big trouble, okay?”

He added that day: “Certainly it would be a very bad thing in terms of relationship. It would take a while to rebuild.”

None of this appears to apply anymore. Trump is suggesting we’ll never really know what happened, even as the CIA is preparing to report that it has high confidence that Mohammed ordered Khashoggi’s murder.

But Trump didn’t stop there Tuesday; he also said it doesn’t really matter whether Mohammed ordered it — such is the importance, in his telling, of our reliance upon Saudi Arabia. “Our intelligence agencies continue to assess all information,” he said in his statement, “but it could very well be that the Crown Prince had knowledge of this tragic event — maybe he did and maybe he didn’t!” Then he continued making the case for no punishment for Mohammed.

That’s Trump basically throwing up his hands and saying it doesn’t really matter whether Mohammed ordered it. And that doesn’t comport with what he said before. It doesn’t make sense after saying it would be a “very bad thing in terms of our relationship” and that whoever was responsible “should be in big trouble.” It doesn’t make sense from a president who has promised “very severe” punishment for the perpetrators. Trump hasn’t projected any of the anger he promised in that “60 Minutes” interview if he found out Mohammed was responsible. And the “terrible, terrible precedent” that would be set is now being shrugged off.

Trump seemed to be betting heavily on the idea that the intelligence would never directly implicate Mohammed. He offered numerous alternative narratives — some of them coming directly from the Saudis. But he always said there would be severe punishment if that were eventually found to be the case.

Now it has, and he’s taken it all back.