Trump brushes off CIA findings on Khashoggi
President Trump continued to stand by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman this week, even as the CIA concluded that the prince ordered the murder and dismemberment of dissident Saudi and Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The Post and The New York Times both reported that CIA officials are now confident that Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler approved the clandestine mission to assassinate Khashoggi inside the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul. The assessment is based on intercepted Saudi communications, including a phone call made by a member of the 15-person kill squad to one of the crown prince’s senior aides shortly after the grisly killing. “Tell your boss,” the assassin told the aide. In a written statement, Trump conceded that “it could very well be that the crown prince had knowledge of this tragic event,” but added, “Maybe he did and maybe he didn’t!” Trump praised Saudi Arabia as a “great ally” and said the kingdom is indispensable to U.S. interests in the Middle East, including fighting terrorism and containing Iran.
The White House has so far imposed sanctions on 17 Saudi nationals linked to the crime, but it has stopped short of implicating the crown prince, despite growing domestic and international pressure. The Saudis continue to deny that the prince had any involvement. Last week, a Saudi prosecutor recommended the death penalty for five of the 11 suspects charged in the killing. In his statement, Trump said further punishing the Saudis would not be in U.S. interests. “America First!” Trump said.
What the editorials said
“How stupid does Saudi Arabia think people are?” said USA Today. In the weeks since Khashoggi’s disappearance, the explanations out of Riyadh have becoming increasingly implausible, going from outright denials to trying to pin the murder on rogue operatives. If Trump doesn’t impose severe sanctions—diplomatic, economic, and military—on both the Saudis and Prince Mohammed, it will be “tantamount to letting him get away with murder.”
Sadly, it appears that “nothing can disrupt the White House’s bond” with the prince, said The Washington Post, even the findings of American intelligence agencies. It’s true that the U.S. can’t completely abandon its strategic relationship with Saudi Arabia. But the Trump administration is “mistakenly conflating” the Saudi regime with a 33-year-old princeling whose “toxic record of recklessness” began long before Khashoggi’s murder. That includes instigating a catastrophic war in Yemen that has done nothing to achieve the ostensible goal of reining in Iran. “The Saudi royal family cannot afford and will not allow a rupture with the United States.” The prince is expendable.
What the columnists said
Trump “has never wanted to make a big deal” out of Khashoggi’s killing, said Jonathan Swan in Axios.com. Privately, he’s been telling aides that other countries America deals with “do a lot of bad things,” and he can’t understand why the murder of one man has garnered so much attention. His only agenda is to “get back to business with the Saudis.”
“Trump might well decide that broader U.S. goals are more important than holding the crown prince accountable,” said Erin Dunne in WashingtonExaminer.com, but he should at least have the courage to face the meaning of his actions. The president says there’s “no reason” for him to listen to audio recordings of Khashoggi’s killing, calling it “very violent, very vicious and terrible.” He needs to listen. If Trump is willing to excuse chopping a man into bits for the sake of stronger U.S.-Saudi relations, he should “know what exactly it is that his administration is sweeping under the rug.”
Trump badly underestimates the depth of anger at the Saudis, said Heather Hurlburt in NYMag.com. The list of American grievances is long, from horror at Saudi human rights abuses, to frustration over the kingdom’s clout in setting oil prices, to anger over the Sept. 11 attacks and the Saudi role in “incubating’’ Al Qaida. Polling shows that the kingdom is increasingly unpopular in both parties, freeing up congressional Republicans to overrule Trump and join with Democrats in cutting off arms sales and imposing sanctions. The U.S.-Saudi reckoning may have finally arrived. “That’s what the death of one man can do.”
Cover illustration by Fred Harper.
Cover photos from Newscom, ElephantVoices, AP ■