John Bolton’s Absurd Excuse For Ignoring The Evidence Of Jamal Khashoggi’s Murder

National Security Adviser John Bolton offered an utterly absurd explanation for why he had not listened to the tape of Jamal Khashoggi's murder.

National Security Adviser John Bolton doesn’t think it’s necessary for him to listen to the intelligence tapes of the apparent torture and murder of Jamal Khashoggi because he doesn’t speak Arabic:

WASHINGTON — John R. Bolton, President Trump’s national security adviser, defended on Tuesday the fact that neither Mr. Trump nor top national security officials had listened to audio of the killing of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, saying that they did not speak Arabic and would not be able to understand what was on the tape.

During a nearly hourlong briefing focused on foreign policy, Mr. Bolton took the lectern at the White House and declined to answer repeated questions about why he had not listened to the recording provided by Turkish officials of the killing inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul.

“Why do you think I should?” Mr. Bolton asked reporters, suggesting he could read a transcript instead. “People who speak Arabic have listened to the tape, and they’ve given us the substance of what’s in it.”

Mr. Bolton’s comments came as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis were preparing to brief the Senate on Wednesday about the circumstances surrounding Mr. Khashoggi’s death, which has prompted outrage among members of Congress.

Mr. Trump has absolved the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, in the killing, putting the president at odds with those lawmakers and the C.I.A., which concluded that Prince Mohammed had ordered the killing.

“It could very well be that the crown prince had knowledge of this tragic event,” Mr. Trump said last week in an extraordinary statement in defense of the Saudis. “Maybe he did and maybe he didn’t!”

Mr. Bolton indicated that the president’s views have remained unchanged since then. “The president has spoken to our position on this issue,” Mr. Bolton said. “That is our position.”

The recording is seen by intelligence officials as some of the strongest evidence linking Prince Mohammed to the killing. People familiar with recordings of the killing say that Maher Abdulaziz Mutreb, a security officer who frequently traveled with the prince, can be heard in one recording making a phone call to someone believed to be one of the prince’s aides.

While translations of the Arabic may differ, the people briefed on the call said Mr. Mutreb said to the aide words to the effect of “the deed was done.”

Gina Haspel, the C.I.A. director, took two experts in Arabic with her to Turkey when she listened to the audio, according to American officials. Neither Ms. Haspel nor other intelligence officials will join Mr. Pompeo and Mr. Mattis at the briefing Wednesday, according to American officials.

Intelligence briefings to Congress are typically kept separate from policy briefings, and some officials did not think it would be appropriate to have a senior intelligence leader join the two cabinet secretaries.

Congressional officials said Ms. Haspel would have also faced questions about her visit to Turkey that she would have been barred from sharing with a large group of lawmakers.

“I’m glad that Pompeo and Mattis are coming, that’s going to be helpful,” said Senator Bob Corker, Republican of Tennessee and the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “But I just think it’d be better if the C.I.A. director was here, who basically did the assessment.”‘

Bolton’s explanation for why he has not listened to the tape of Khashoggi’s murder is, of course, utterly absurd. As the manner in which Haspel handled the situation when she was given the opportunity to listen to the tape, the obvious solution to the language barrier would be to listen to the tape along with one or more translators who are fluent in Arabic who can provide instantaneous translation of what is being said as well as some degree of analysis of the nature of the contents of the recordings based on their understanding of what was said. Indeed, even if Bolton was fluent in Arabic, it would still be a wise and proper practice for him to listen to the tape in the presence of appropriately skilled translators in order to ensure that they are getting a proper sense of what is being said on the tape, some of which may not be entirely clear just by listening to the tape itself.

Bolton’s refusal to even listen to the evidence available to him as National Security Adviser is an absurd and irresponsible abdication of his responsibilities as National Security Adviser, of course, but they are utterly consistent with the manner in which the Trump Administration has handled this matter from the beginning. Virtually from the first day that we learned about Khashoggi’s disappearance after entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, this Administration has effectively done whatever it can to help the Saudi government cover up the role of the Crown Prince and others in what now clearly seems to have been a premeditated and planned murder. In this regard, it is worth noting that it was President Trump who first put forward the theory that Khashoggi’s disappearance was due to an operation by what President Trump described as ‘rogue killers’ who acted without the knowledge of Saudi leadership. This, of course, is the explanation that the Saudis have now put forward as their official explanation for what happened notwithstanding the fact it is, in the end, utterly implausible.

Just prior to the Thanksgiving holiday, it was reported that the Central Intelligence Agency had apparently reached the conclusion that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was directly responsible for Khashoggi’s death. Despite this, the President essentially repudiated the conclusions of his own intelligence agencies and sided with the Saudis and their claim that M.B.S., as he is known internationally, had nothing to do with what happened. In other words, the Trump Administration is letting the Saudi government get away with cold-blooded murder. While there have been some bland statements of concern about what happened to Khashoggi, it has been obvious from the start that the President and the White House are not interested in putting pressure on Riyadh to come clean about Khashoggi’s fate. Given this, Bolton’s refusal to listen to the evidence regarding Khashoggi’s murder, which includes intercepts that apparently clearly implicate M.B.S. in the conspiracy to murder Jamal Khashoggi.

The cynicism and moral depravity of what this President and his Administration have done here cannot be exaggerated. Yes, Jamal Khashoggi was just one man and the American relationship with Saudi Arabia is a complicated one, but that hardly excuses the fact that this President and his advisers are excusing murder notwithstanding the fact that the blood on the hands of the Crown Prince and de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia is as clear as day. Some will argue that the difference here is that Saudi Arabia is an “ally,” but incidents like this make clear that Saudi Arabia is no ally. Taken in this light, Bolton’s refusal to even listen to the evidence is utterly inexcusable.

FILED UNDER: Donald Trump, Intelligence, Middle East, National Security, Politicians, US Politics, , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook


  1. Kathy says:

    El Cheeto is making it look as though American well being and prosperity depend on the whims and good will of a foreign autocrat, and for that he’ll find no depravity to law in the autocrat’s defense.

    What’s so great about that?

  2. Michael says:

    I suppose we can now just call these responses “Schrodinger’s answers”. Either he knew or he didn’t know. We’ll see.

  3. Michael says:

    I suppose we should now refer to such answers as the “Schrodinger’s” response. He either knew or he didn’t know.

  4. Just Another Ex-Republican says:

    I don’t find his reason for not listening to the tape himself at all absurd. If you don’t understand the language its just gibberish and (probably) screaming incoherently.

    What’s absurd, cynical, and horrifying is ignoring the clear conclusions of your experts who have listened to the tape (as well as the other evidence accumulated) because it doesn’t agree with the President’s wishes.

  5. Michael Reynolds says:

    Interesting insight to Bolton’s mind. He excludes a priori anything that might sway him, anything that might have an emotional impact. This goes to my theory that the essential characteristic of the conservative mind is an absence of imagination, or empathy.

  6. Gustopher says:

    Meanwhile, Stephen Miller has had it on repeat for weeks.

  7. The Q says:

    Obviously that treasonous phucker didn’t get the memo from his Arabic speakers stating “THERE AREN’T ANY WMDS IN IRAQ YOU NEOCON BASTARD”

  8. JohnMcC says:

    On all the larger questions r/t MbS and Bolton and Yemen and the KSA, the whole stinking mess — I agree with I s’pose everyone here. We ought to separate ourselves from them to the degree we can do so and remain a responsible superpower. Certainly ought to stop defending criminals and thugs.

    But on the specific question of listening to the tape? Don’t blame Bolton at all. I personally would try very hard to avoid listening to it. I find as I get older I also get more lachrymose.

    Must be some horrible noises on that tape.

  9. wr says:

    @JohnMcC: “But on the specific question of listening to the tape? Don’t blame Bolton at all.”

    Except, of course, it’s his fucking job. Should you listen to it? Absolutely not, if you don’t want to — there’s no reason for it. But this is knowledge that Bolton needs to make an informed decision… that is, if he wanted to make an informed decision. Is it gross and horrible and painful for Bolton to listen to? Possibly. But a lot less so than it was for Kashoggi to go through the experience…

  10. Kathy says:

    BTW, those defending El Cheeto on realpolitik grounds, will they get real with the politics involved and demand Saudi pay through the nose for the US to overlook the role of MbS in the Khashoggi murder?

    See the world’s reaction. If the US pushed for MbS to step down, they’d find plenty of international support. Ditto if they pressed through weapons sales and other economic means.

    So why is Trump acting like a supplicant, doing the Saudi’s bidding in exchange for keeping the oil flowing?

  11. JohnMcC says:

    @wr: Well, not to be unpleasant but I pretty strongly disagree that listening to the death of Mr Khashoggi would inform Mr Bolton of some information that would make us more secure. Seems to me that demands that he or the President listen to the thing are a way of demonstrating that they don’t feel bad enough about his death. Which, I admit, might well be true. But I don’t think the emotions contribute to policy or security. I’d contend that emotions provoked by such a tape would act against sound policy, if there was any effect at all.

  12. Michael Reynolds says:

    I think emotional revulsion can be very useful. People can talk themselves into all kinds of things. Reason is certainly the go-to, but it is hardly infallible and sometimes just the raw emotional reality is exactly what you need to remind yourself of core principles.

  13. wr says:

    @JohnMcC: I’m not finding you unpleasant at all, and I certainly understand (again) why you wouldn’t want to hear this tape. I suspect you also wouldn’t want to look at the crime scene photos from the Manson Family murders, and there’s no reason you should. But the cops and prosecutors investigating those crimes absolutely needed to. If their stomachs were too weak to examine the evidence, they would have had to step aside and let someone else do the job. Same for Bolton.

  14. just nutha says:


    So why is Trump acting like a supplicant, doing the Saudi’s bidding in exchange for keeping the oil flowing?

    I think this response comes under the category of “answering your own question.”


Speak Your Mind