Last Friday, The Washington Post broke the story that “the CIA has concluded that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul last month.”
This was simultaneously completely unsurprising and vitally important. It was unsurprising because the shifting stories about Khashoggi’s murder that the Saudi government had put out — finally culminating in the claim that it was the work of a “rogue” group — were utterly ludicrous; no one actually believes that a team of 15 operatives would have been dispatched to Istanbul to kill Khashoggi without the knowledge of the country’s ruler. And it was vitally important because once the CIA’s conclusion was made public, that put pressure on President Trump to do something about it.
On Tuesday he did something about it, in his way. The White House released a statement from the president, one that seems to have been dictated, transcribed and then released with no editing, since it’s spoken not in the careful language of diplomacy or law but in the way Trump communicates when tweeting or calling in to “Fox & Friends.” Including all the exclamation points.
The statement begins by criticizing Iran, Saudi Arabia's principal adversary in the Middle East, and excuses Saudi human rights abuses in Yemen by saying, "Saudi Arabia would gladly withdraw from Yemen if the Iranians would agree to leave." Then Trump gets to what really matters to him anyway: money. He said:
"After my heavily negotiated trip to Saudi Arabia last year, the Kingdom agreed to spend and invest $450 billion in the United States. This is a record amount of money. It will create hundreds of thousands of jobs, tremendous economic development, and much additional wealth for the United States. Of the $450 billion, $110 billion will be spent on the purchase of military equipment from Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon and many other great U.S. defense contractors. If we foolishly cancel these contracts, Russia and China would be the enormous beneficiaries — and very happy to acquire all of this newfound business. It would be a wonderful gift to them directly from the United States!”
It’s important to know that these figures are bogus. The Saudis did not agree to spend and invest $450 billion in the United States, a number Trump seems to have just made up; they did not order $110 billion in military equipment; and they will not be creating hundreds of thousands of jobs in the United States.
But if you wanted to be generous, you could give Trump some credit for placing a kernel of truth under his pile of lies: We may not like it if you repress dissent and murder journalists who criticize your regime, but as long as you keep paying us, we'll look the other way.
And let's be honest, the United States has a long history of propping up oppressive dictatorships if we get something out of the relationship, whether it's oil in the case of the Saudis, a Cold War proxy in too many countries to mention, or just business. We deal every day with China, which is probably the most oppressive government on earth in terms of the sheer quantity of people imprisoned, executed or otherwise punished for getting on the wrong side of the regime.
Nevertheless, there's still value in arguing for democratic norms of liberty and freedom of expression, even if there's only so much we're willing to do to make them a reality. But even Trump, who evinces no commitment to those norms whatsoever, can't quite bring himself to say that he's A-OK with Khashoggi's murder. So in this statement, he retreats to a kind of implausible deniability, finally arriving at the position that while the crown prince might be responsible for Khashoggi's death, it could also be a 400-pound guy sitting on his bed in New Jersey:
“Representatives of Saudi Arabia say that Jamal Khashoggi was an “enemy of the state” and a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, but my decision is in no way based on that — this is an unacceptable and horrible crime. King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman vigorously deny any knowledge of the planning or execution of the murder of Mr. Khashoggi. Our intelligence agencies continue to assess all information, but it could very well be that the Crown Prince had knowledge of this tragic event — maybe he did and maybe he didn’t!”
Let’s not forget an important angle to all this: Trump’s reaction to the Khashoggi murder could very well be the subject of oversight conducted by House Democrats next year. As former congressional aides recently told this blog, such an examination could be a big-picture one that looks back at the administration’s whole handling of this.
First, there's the intelligence angle. We learned from Washington Post reporting that the CIA has concluded that the crown prince ordered Khashoggi's killing. But this is based, appropriately, on anonymous sources, and there are multiple areas in which what we know is vague. Democratic oversight might flesh out what intelligence agencies concluded — and perhaps how and when the administration was briefed on it.
Democrats could also try to look at private communications between the administration and the Saudis during the period in which neither side was acknowledging the Saudi role. Remember, at that time, The Post reported that the administration and the Saudi royal family were "searching for a mutually agreeable explanation" for Khashoggi's death that would "avoid implicating" the crown prince.
Such an examination could also look at Trump's financial entanglements with the Saudis. As it is, Senate Democrats have already requested that Trump provide information about the Trump Organization's business relationships with the Saudi government and royal family, suggesting there are possible conflicts of interest at play. One cannot dismiss the possibility that Trump's personal profiting off the Saudis is shaping U.S. policy — a ripe area for oversight that could go beyond just the Khashoggi killing.
Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., the incoming chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, recently hinted to this blog that the committee might take a look at the Trump administration's response, if it became clear the administration went along with Saudi efforts to whitewash the killing.
"This is not something we can turn our heads away from," Engel told this blog at the time. "I want a full accounting of what happened." Tuesday's Trump statement does not play down the Saudi role in the killing, but one could see the committee taking an interest, given just how bizarre and solicitous toward the Saudis the statement really is.
As Mariah Sixkiller, who was national security adviser to Rep. Steny Hoyer for years, put it: "This level of administration deference in the face of such a radical act merits heavy congressional scrutiny."
Given today’s insanity, that can’t come soon enough.
Greg Sargent writes The Plum Line blog, a reported opinion blog with a liberal slant — what you might call “opinionated reporting” from the left. @theplumlinegs
Paul Waldman is an opinion writer for the Plum Line blog. @paulwaldman1