- Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi disappeared after entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in early October and is feared dead.
- Turkish officials have accused Saudi Arabia of killing Khashoggi on orders from the highest levels of its government, and the evidence is damning.
- Reports suggest Khashoggi’s death was a result of orders from Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
- Trump has largely stood by the Saudis throughout the investigation, and has repeatedly defended its rulers.
- The president’s approach to the Khashoggi case follows a familiar pattern to his playbook on Russian election interference.
- Trump has made a habit of placing trust in leaders with dubious reputations, perhaps most notably Russian President Vladimir Putin.
There’s an expanding mountain of evidence that journalist Jamal Khashoggi was brutally killed in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, and multiple reports suggest his death was a result of orders from the highest levels of the kingdom’s government, including Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
But US President Donald Trump has largely stood by the Saudi leadership despite the troubling allegations.
Based on what we know about the Khashoggi investigation and Trump’s overall reaction to it, the president is placing his trust in a leader – the crown prince – who is either being deliberately deceptive or has people working for him who are uncontrollable.
What we know is this:
- Khashoggi, who’s often been critical of Saudi leadership in his writing, entered the consulate on October 2. He never came out.
- The Saudi government has vehemently denied any involvement in his disappearance and originally claimed he safely departed the consulate, but provided no proof.
- Reports this week have suggested they are considering changing that story, admitting he was killed but blaming it on a botched investigation without clearance from the government.
- Turkish officials have said they have audio and video recordings that proves Khashoggi was killed in the consulate.
- Turkish officials have suggested the Saudis sent a 15-man team to Istanbul that interrogated, tortured, drugged, and killed Khashoggi before dismembering his body with a bone saw and sending it back to Saudi Arabia.
- One of the people suspected of being involved in Khashoggi’s disappearance has been identified as a frequent travel companion of the crown prince, according to The New York Times.
Trump continues to defend the Saudis despite the evidence
Trump has opted to side with the Saudis, repeatedly touting denials of any responsibility for Khashoggi’s fate from both the crown prince and his father, King Salman, while exhibiting a deep reluctance to punish the kingdom.
For example, Trump said it would be a “tough pill to swallow” to reduce or cease US arms sales to the Saudis.
Congressional leaders have condemned Trump for his response.
“I think the Saudis believe they have a blank check from this presidency. I’m very concerned that US national security policy is for sale,” Sen. Chris Murphy, a Democrat from Connecticut and member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told Business Insider.
On Monday, Trump suggested “rogue killers” could be behind Khashoggi’s disappearance. On Tuesday, he said the case served as another example of “guilty until proven innocent,” comparing it to the chaotic confirmation process for Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh.
And on Wednesday, Trump expressed scepticism as to whether Turkish officials had audio and video proving Khashoggi was killed. He also stressed the fact Khashoggi was not a US citizen – he was a US resident with a green card – as he boasted about billions of dollars of US arms sales to the Saudis.
“My instinct is that the Saudis will cook up some way to cast blame on someone – anyone – so as to get Prince Salman off the hook,” said Robert Deitz, a former top lawyer at the CIA and National Security Agency. “Hence, the search for ‘rogues.'”
However, he added: “Trump is not exactly Mother Teresa. I doubt whether he much cares if yet another annoying reporter gets shot between the eyes.”
Trump’s trust in the Saudi leadership follows a familiar pattern
Randa Slim, director of conflict resolution at the Middle East Institute, told Business Insider she does not see Trump taking significant steps to reprimand the Saudis. She also said Trump’s approach to the situation will be similar to how he’s handled Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election.
“Congress will act,” Slim said. “Trump will try to limit the fallout as much as possible. Look at how he is dealing with Russia and Putin as the roadmap for how he will deal with Saudi Arabia and the crown prince going forward.”
Trump has made a habit of placing trust in leaders with dubious reputations, perhaps most notably North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
When Trump suggested “rogue killers” could be responsible for Khashoggi’s disappearance, it was similar to his suggestion during the 2016 campaign that a 400-pound hacker – not the Russian government – could be behind interference in the election.
Trump, sounding very similar to his Putin interference denials, says that it could have been "rogue killers" who murdered Jamal Khashoggi.
"It sounded to me like maybe these could have been rogue killers. Who knows?" (via ABC) pic.twitter.com/uap6d2Db40
— Kyle Griffin (@kylegriffin1) October 15, 2018
When Trump met with the Russian leader in Helsinki in July, he stunned observers when he indicated that he believed Putin over the US intelligence community, declined to denounce Putin, and suggested the FBI was part of a conspiracy to undermine his election victory.
His comments on the Saudi controversy have been similar. Last week, for instance, he deflected when asked if Saudi Arabia’s human rights record is “overlooked.”
“I think a lot of records are overlooked,” Trump said. “If you look at Iran, if you look at so many other countries, take a look at Syria. You take a look at a lot of countries, a lot of countries’ records have been overlooked.”
The comment was reminiscent of Trump’s deflection when the former Fox News host Bill O’Reilly referred to Putin as a “killer” during an interview amid the 2016 campaign.
Trump responded: “There are a lot of killers. You think our country’s so innocent?”
“It’s hard to understand why the president has put us in such a weak position with Saudi Arabia and Russia,” Murphy said. “It looks today as if they can get whatever they want from the US and this administration, and it raises lots of questions as to why that is.”
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