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Trump joins Saudi Arabia’s Khashoggi coverup

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It’s now been two weeks since Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi disappeared after entering his country’s consulate in Istanbul. Reports from Turkish sources that the Saudis allegedly murdered and dismembered the dissident writer, a Washington Post contributor, have fanned a growing backlash against Riyadh in Western capitals. But the kingdom has circled the wagons and angrily hit back at the accusations — and it seems to have found a willing ally in President Trump.

On Monday morning, Trump held a 20-minute phone call with the Saudi king and then parroted Riyadh’s denials to reporters. “I don’t want to get into his mind, but it sounded to me like maybe these could have been rogue killers,” Trump said. “Who knows? We’re going to try getting to the bottom of it very soon, but his was a flat denial.”

But news broke later in the evening that made the king’s “flat denial” all the more unbelievable. CNN reported that the Saudis were readying to acknowledge that Khashoggi died while in their custody. Citing two sources, the network reported that the journalist’s death “was the result of an interrogation that went wrong, one that was intended to lead to his abduction from Turkey.”

The Post’s Shane Harris reported last week that U.S. intelligence intercepts suggested Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman had approved a scheme to lure Khashoggi out of de facto exile in the United States and detain him. Khashoggi, 59, a former Riyadh insider with a colorful career in politics and journalism, had moved overseas to express his disquiet with the kingdom’s leadership, particularly the youthful Mohammed.

President Trump told reporters Oct. 15 that Saudi King Salman “firmly denied” knowledge about the disappearance of Washington Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi. (Video: The Washington Post)

If the Saudis do confirm that Khashoggi died on their watch, it will be a damning admission after days of obfuscation and denials.

Over the weekend, the Saudi government railed against foreign conspirators supposedly bent on undermining the kingdom’s reputation. Its Foreign Ministry issued a defiant statement warning of the “demise” of any pressure campaign against Riyadh. It cajoled a number of Arab nations in the Saudi orbit, including Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, to issue statements affirming their solidarity with the Saudis. The Saudi government also put out a notice threatening any “rumormongers” within the country with five-year jail sentences.

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To soften the blow of an about-face, the Saudis will offer a version of events that attempts to insulate the crown prince from blame for the debacle, according to reports Monday. But many current and former U.S. officials in Washington still have a hard time believing that what transpired within a Saudi consulate wouldn’t have had the blessing of senior royals in Riyadh.

“This never would have happened without MBS’s approval. Never, never, never,” a former senior U.S. diplomat with long experience in Saudi Arabia told my colleagues, referring to Mohammed.

Even if Khashoggi’s death was an “accident,” it will stir outrage in Washington. Outside the White House, there is growing bipartisan distaste for Riyadh on a number of fronts. “Been hearing the ridiculous ‘rogue killers’ theory was where the Saudis would go with this,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, said in a tweet. “Absolutely extraordinary they were able to enlist the President of the United States as their PR agent to float it.”

Trump now finds himself in a delicate situation — one entirely of his own making. As we’ve covered extensively in Today’s WorldView, the White House saw in Riyadh a committed ally against Iran and a willing customer for U.S. arms companies. Trump has said outright that he is hesitant to crack the whip on Riyadh lest he compromise billions of dollars in weapons sales to the Saudis.

Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and the White House adviser entrusted with Middle East policy, also has developed close ties with the Saudis. One Trump adviser recently told my colleagues that it was “insane” how much Kushner spoke with the Saudi crown prince. Another senior U.S. intelligence official told The Post that Kushner had adopted Mohammed’s crude view of geopolitics in the region: “ ‘MBS has an elevator pitch,’ this official said, that Kushner has bought into: Iran is the main enemy and the single obstacle to peace and stability in the Middle East.”

“I have a sense that they put all of their chips on the hope that the Saudis would be able to help the United States, not only in dealing with the challenges of terrorism, but also in dealing with peace in the Middle East,” Leon Panetta, a defense secretary and CIA director under President Barack Obama, told my colleagues.

It seems increasingly clear that it was not a winning bet.

Mohammed carried out a sustained charm offensive in the West, wooing U.S. politicians, media and business executives with grand visions of his country’s liberalization and reform. Critics scoffed at such optimism, pointing to the crown prince’s record of detaining political opponents, muffling civil society and presiding over a ruinous, bloody war in Yemen that may trigger the worst famine in a century. The imbroglio over Khashoggi could be the proverbial straw that breaks the Saudi PR camel’s back.

Jackson Diehl, The Post’s deputy editorial page editor, argued that governments in Saudi Arabia and Israel have counted on Trump’s acquiescence to push hard-line agendas at home. “The leaders of the two countries, Mohammed bin Salman and Benjamin Netanyahu, have given Trump what he most craves: sycophantic support,” Diehl wrote. “This being the Middle East — a far more ruthless theater than the New York real estate market — both countries have exploited Trump’s indulgence to the hilt, taking actions they never would have dared under Obama or any other previous president.”

The question for Trump, should the grim reports around Khashoggi’s death prove true, is how much longer can his indulgence of the Saudis last?

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