Trump Administration Allowing Saudis To Evade Responsibility For Khashoggi’s Death

As the Saudis continue to dissemble and put forward an utterly implausible explanation for the death of Jamal Khashoggi, the Trump Administration shows no sign of having a spine.

It has now been over a month since Jamal Khashoggi walked into the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul to obtain a document he needed in order to marry his Turkish fiancé. He never walked out, and in the month that has followed we have learned more and more about the details of what happened to the Saudi-born journalist who became a Saudi dissident, Washington Post columnist, and American Permanent Resident. Most of those details, of course, have come from the Turks, who have their own axes to grind against the Saudis but who nonetheless appear to be playing this case as a straightforward criminal investigation. On the other side, there are the Saudis, who have engaged in nothing more than a month worth of lies, evasions, implausible explanations, and misdirection. In the middle is the Trump Administration, which finds itself dealing with a NATO ally that seems intent on pursuing the truth behind Khashoggi’s disappearance and a Saudi “ally” that has spent years abusing its relationship with the United States but which has bolstered that relationship in recent years thanks to close relationships between Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and several top members of the Trump Administration, including Presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner.

When Khashoggi first disappeared, the Saudis initially claimed that he had visited the consulate as scheduled, obtained the document he needed, and left. They stuck with this story despite the fact that it was directly contradicted by both Khashoggi’s fiance, who spent hours waiting outside the consulate for him before contacting Turkish authorities, and by Turkish authorities who released surveillance camera footage that showed Khashoggi walking into the consulate shortly before 1:15 p.m. local time, and never walking out. When asked to provide evidence to back up their claim that Khashoggi had left the consulate, the Saudi’s responded with the absurd claim that their security cameras only live-streamed video and that they did not keep recorded copies of what was going on outside their own consulate.

When it became apparent that this particular lie could not stand even a cursory credibility test, the Saudis slowly began creating a new story that was equally implausible. Within a week after Khashoggi’s disappearance, the Saudis appeared ready to put forward the claim that Khashoggi’s disappearance, which they still were not officially acknowledging, was due to an operation by what President Trump described as ‘rogue killers’ acting without the knowledge of either their superiors or Saudi leadership. This explanation, such as it was,  was being advanced at the same time that Turkish authorities reached the rather obvious conclusion that Khashoggi had died inside the consulate and revealed certain facts surrounding his death, including the details surrounding the arrival and departure of a team of fifteen Saudis linked to the Crown Prince, as well as Saudi military and intelligence services, who allegedly were involved in whatever happened. Among these revelations was the fact that nearly all of the members of the aforementioned fifteen person team, including the alleged leaders, were linked in some way to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the de facto leader of the country in place of a father who, according to some reports, may be suffering from the early symptoms of dementia. As I noted at the time, this was an entirely implausible explanation that required one to forget everything we know about how things actually operate in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Finally, after about three weeks of evasions, the Saudis were reported to be looking to pin responsibility for Khashoggi’s fate on a fall guy. Shortly thereafter, the Saudis put forward an explanation claiming that Khashoggi’s death was the result of an operation that was carried out by people close to the Crown Prince but done entirely without his knowledge or authorization. This explanation also claimed that the original intent of the operation had been to question Khashoggi and/or return him surreptitiously to the KSA. This story was no more credible than previous explanations, of course, but that is precisely the position that the Saudis took when they finally released an official “explanation” for Khashoggi’s disappearance and death that acknowledged that he was, in fact, dead and that his death had occurred when he was inside the consulate. This explanation, though, maintained the hard to believe a claim that the operation that led to Khashoggi’s death, which Riyadh maintained at the time was due to a rendition (a/k/a kidnapping) operation gone awry. Now, finally, the Saudis have acknowledged that it was the intention of the fifteen man team that arrived in Istanbul the morning of the day Khashoggi was scheduled to visit the consulate and left before sundown the same day to kill Khashoggi, although they continue to maintain the increasingly implausible claim that the Crown Prince knew nothing about what was being carried out in the name of the country he leads.

Throughout all of this, the Trump Administration has sat on the sidelines and effectively let the Saudis get away with murder, and there’s no sign of that changing:

The Trump administration is waiting to see the results of a Saudi investigation into the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, according to U.S. officials, and appears in no hurry to decide whether and how to punish Saudi Arabia.

The only specific response suggested so far has come from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who said this week that the administration was “reviewing putting sanctions on the individuals . . . engaged in that murder.”

“It’ll take us probably a handful more weeks before we have enough evidence to actually put these sanctions in place,” Pompeo said in a radio interview Thursday, “but I think we’ll be able to get there.” The Saudis have made 18 arrests of mostly security agents they say were involved in the killing of Khashoggi, a self-exiled Saudi journalist critical of the ruling monarchy, during an Oct. 2 visit he made to the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul.

Lawmakers in both parties have expressed outrage at Khashoggi’s violent death, and some have demanded harsh action ranging from suspension of U.S. arms sales and military cooperation to ending discussions over a U.S.-Saudi civil nuclear agreement. Some have called for the administration to use the Khashoggi case as leverage to force Saudi Arabia to end its brutal, U.S.-assisted war in Yemen, and to bring to a close its dispute with Persian Gulf neighbor Qatar, another U.S. ally.

“The last thing we want to do is continue on with a ‘business as usual’ response” toward Saudi Arabia, Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) said last month, even before the kingdom had acknowledged that its own personnel carried out the premeditated killing of Khashoggi and arranged for the disappearance of his body.

Individual temperatures have been high, but the midterm elections and the impossibility during a congressional recess of holding hearings on what the administration knows and intends to do have limited any coordinated oversight.

While President Trump has demanded the truth and all options are said to be on the table, he has repeatedly emphasized that business as usual with Saudi Arabia is precisely what he has in mind. He has cited the economic importance of Saudi purchases of U.S. weapons, the stability of international oil markets and what he considers the kingdom’s key role in advancing U.S. objectives in the Middle East.

Trump, Pompeo said, “has made very clear not only do we have important commercial relationships, but important strategic relationships, national security relationships with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and we intend to make sure that those relationships remain intact.”

Pompeo has said the United States will not be bound by either the Turkish or Saudi version of events but will develop its own information and come to its own conclusions. He is pushing the Saudis hard to rapidly finish their investigation of the killing, one U.S. official said, and has stressed the need for full transparency in conversations with King Salman and his son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

“We’re expecting the Saudis to come up with something that’s very close to what we all know,” the official said. “There’s not a lot of wiggle room.” U.S. and foreign officials discussed the sensitive diplomatic matter only on condition of anonymity.

The Saudis, meanwhile, already seem prepared to fight back against efforts to tie Khashoggi’s murder to the Crown Prince:

Prince Turki al-Faisal, son of a former king and cousin of the crown prince, is a former Saudi intelligence chief and ambassador to both the United States and Britain, as well as a once-close associate of Khashoggi’s. Known as a pillar of the more moderate and internationally minded branch of the royal family, he rejected, in remarks last week to Post columnist David Ignatius, any suggestion that the kingdom might want to marginalize the ambitious Mohammed. “The more criticism there is of the crown prince, the more popular he is in the kingdom,” Turki said.

At the conference, Turki noted that the U.S.-Saudi alliance had kept oil markets stable and combated terrorism, and he said that the “pillars” of cooperation were now “challenged.” But, he warned that “the importance of Saudi Arabia has not changed. . . . The kingdom is the center of the Islamic world.”

Moreover, “people in glass houses should not cast stones,” Turki said. “Countries that have tortured and incarcerated innocent people” and “launched a war that killed many thousands . . . based on fabricated information, should be humble in their regard to others,” he said, a clear reference to U.S. counterterrorism policy and the invasion of Iraq.

Turki suggested a double standard was being applied to Saudi Arabia. Innocent Palestinians “are slaughtered every day by the Israeli army,” he said. “And yet, I do not see the same media frenzy, the demand to bring the perpetrators and whoever ordered them to kill those children to justice.”

In the end, I don’t think that Prince Turki or anyone else in the Saudi leadership has anything to worry about when it comes to this Administration and its potential response to the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. From the start, it’s been apparent that neither the President nor any of his top advisers are at all interested in getting to the truth about what happened, or holding the parties who were quite obviously behind this responsible for their actions. Instead, what we have gotten are bland statements of concern about what happened to Khashoggi and an apparent willingness to believe the “official” Saudi explanation notwithstanding the fact that they make utterly no sense based on the available evidence. In no small part, of course, this is due to the fact that the relationship between the United States and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is a long-standing one that is rooted both in the realities of the need to keep the oil flowing and the fact that this Administration, and previous Administrations, see the KSA as a counterbalance to Iranian influence in the region. Added into this is the fact that the Saudi Crown Prince has a close relationship with many members of the Administration, including Jared Kushner, who apparently communicates with bin Salman on a regular basis. Additionally, much like its predecessor, the Trump Administration has already demonstrated that it is willing to ignore the horrific massacre the Saudis are inflicting on Yemen, a genocide-like strategy that is causing millions to fall into disease and starvation. If the Trump Administration is willing to look the other way while millions suffer at the hands of our Saudi “friends,” why should anyone expect that they’ll give a damn about a single journalist?

FILED UNDER: Donald Trump, 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. gVOR08 says:

    Throughout all of this, the Trump Administration has sat on the sidelines and effectively let the Saudis get away with murder


  2. Kathy says:

    I find it possible that El Cheeto approves of the Khashoggi murder. Wasn’t he an enemy of the people?

  3. Gustopher says:

    As the Saudis continue to dissemble and put forward an utterly implausible explanation for the death of Jamal Khashoggi, the Trump Administration shows no sign of having a spine.

    Is it a spinal issue if they just don’t care?


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