A newly released report from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence points the finger squarely at Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for the gruesome murder of U.S. resident and contributing Washington Post global opinions columnist Jamal Khashoggi.
“We assess that Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman approved an operation in Istanbul, Turkey to capture or kill Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi,” the report says.
The report continues: “Since 2017, the Crown Prince has had absolute control of the Kingdom’s security and intelligence organizations, making it highly unlikely that Saudi officials would have carried out an operation of this nature without the Crown Prince’s authorization.”
The report confirms previous reporting on the crown prince’s readily apparent role in Khashoggi’s murder. The allegation was no secret, and hasn’t been for two years. But it was something Trump took pains to cast doubt on even as his own government verified it.
The Washington Post and others reported in November 2018 that the CIA had concluded with high confidence that the crown prince was behind it. Trump repeatedly questioned that intelligence, as he did with other intelligence he didn’t like. He also suggested in a bizarre statement that we might never know the truth.
“America First! The world is a very dangerous place!” Trump said in the statement, which could very well have been understood as a defense of the Saudis killing Khashoggi.
But Trump then suggested that might have not been what happened at all, despite all the publicly reported intelligence. He also conveniently inserted allegations from Saudi Arabia that Khashoggi was aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood — as if Khashoggi actually might have deserved what befell him.
“Our intelligence agencies continue to assess all information, but it could very well be that the Crown Prince had knowledge of this tragic event — maybe he did and maybe he didn’t!” Trump added, again using the exclamation point. “That being said, we may never know all of the facts surrounding the murder of Mr. Jamal Khashoggi. In any case, our relationship is with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.”
Trump made a clear choice. It was that this relationship was more important than what might have otherwise been understood as a very provocative attack against a U.S. resident and journalist who had criticized the Saudi government. He repeatedly cited U.S. business with Saudi Arabia, including an arms deal he had forged. He cited the long-standing defense alliance in the region between the United States and Saudi Arabia, which the Biden administration has also acknowledged as an important consideration.
But there is a difference between recognizing the importance of an alliance and literally letting the other side get away with murder — and doubting it or even excusing it. Trump’s comments suggested this was a mere pittance in the scheme of things, if it actually happened, even as his own intelligence community determined that it had.
Trump at another point said about what had happened, “Well, will anybody really know?”
Republican Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee at the time said, “If the crown prince went in front of a jury, he would be convicted in 30 minutes.”
It was hardly the only example of Trump siding or sympathizing with a more authoritarian and brutal way of conducting international business — and casting doubt on intelligence about such machinations. But as it did in 2018, it doesn’t exactly speak to his view of a strong America that should be able to dictate how its interests are handled abroad.
Trump and his allies might have little sympathy for a journalist who wasn’t an American citizen, but it was the kind of attack a foreign country would undoubtedly have understood to be a provocative act against an ally. And despite all the evidence Trump was being fed, it was met with a shrug from the leader of the free world. On Friday, we learned that shrug was as ill-founded as it appeared in real time.
Now it’s up to President Biden to decide what to do. He said during the 2020 campaign that Saudi Arabia was a “pariah” and that it would “pay a price” for what it did. White House press secretary Jen Psaki said in advance of the report’s release this week, “I would certainly not say his concerns or his views have changed."
Early reports, though, suggest his course of action might not be terribly different than Trump’s. We’ll have to see, and its at least significant that the Biden administration is acknowledging reality. But it would still be a remarkable flip-flip and a significant concession -- from a second consecutive American president -- that doesn’t exactly project American strength.
This post has been updated.