As Trump Calls Fake News on C.I.A. Assessment, Pompeo Falls into Line. Assassination? What assassination? Why the administration just can’t quit M.B.S.
The C.I.A.’s assessment that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul last month, reported by The Washington Post, appeared to throw a wrench into the Trump administration’s plans to deal with the murder. But swiftly, the Trumpian wheels spun back into their familiar motion. “Fake news” wasn’t invoked, exactly—but the State Department, led by Trump loyalist Mike Pompeo, cast doubt on the reporting about the C.I.A.’s assessment. “Recent reports indicating that the U.S. government has made a final conclusion are inaccurate,” State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert said in a statement Saturday. “There remain numerous unanswered questions with respect to the murder of Mr. Khashoggi.”
On Tuesday, President Trump doubled down on the position in a stunning statement replete with smears (“enemy of the state”) against the slain journalist and an abundance of exclamation points. “King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman vigorously deny any knowledge of the planning or execution of the murder of Mr. Khashoggi,” Trump wrote. “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!”
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Within hours, Pompeo himself stepped in to back up the president at a press briefing in Foggy Bottom, arguing that it was in the interest of U.S. national security to stand by M.B.S. and Saudi Arabia, and even echoing some of the president’s language. “It is a mean, nasty world out there,” Pompeo said. “This is a long, historic commitment, and one that is absolutely vital to America’s national security.” America’s top diplomat conceded that “facts will obviously still continue to come to light,” but failed to address whether any such facts could influence the administration’s posture against the crown prince or the Saudi kingdom.
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Beneath the Pompeo level, the diplomatic kowtowing was met with widespread derision inside Foggy Bottom. “I am disgusted. I am absolutely disgusted,” one State Department official told me. ABC News quoted a State Department official who’d seen the C.I.A. assessment, saying it was “blindingly obvious” that M.B.S. had ordered the killing. But in the Khashoggi case, Trump and Pompeo have signaled that facts will be dictated by policy, rather than the other way around.
Lawmakers on Capitol Hill lambasted Trump’s perceived exoneration of the crown prince and called on the administration to investigate further. “In light of recent developments, including the Saudi government’s acknowledgement that Saudi officials killed Mr. Khashoggi in its Istanbul consulate, we request that your determination specifically address whether Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman is responsible for Mr. Khashoggi’s murder,” Senators Bob Corker and Bob Menendez wrote in a letter, noting that under the Global Magnitsky Act, which they invoked last month, the president is required to probe whether M.B.S. ordered the assassination.
But, the outcry notwithstanding, there is no indication that Trump will soon change tack. “The Trump administration, or to be more specific, the Trump White House, desperately wants the Jamal Khashoggi thing to go away,” Bruce Riedel, a former C.I.A. official and current scholar at the Brookings Institution, told me. “They built their whole Middle East strategy around Mohammed bin Salman and they have now found out that it is bankrupt. He is reckless, he is dangerous, he is impulsive, he is a threat to the stability of the kingdom, a threat to the stability of the region, but it is too late. The Trump family invested in him . . . And they don’t want their investment to be dissolved.” Trump, Riedel noted, has frequently refused to believe his own intelligence experts when their conclusions don’t serve his interests. “This is just another one,” he continued. “It all goes back to he cannot afford to give up Mohammed bin Salman at this stage in the game. And he thinks he can tough it out and Mohammed bin Salman thinks he can tough it out.”
For any administration, grappling with the murder of Khashoggi would be a challenge. “There is no president since I have been alive that would have been willing to throw out our entire architecture of the region based on this event,” a former U.S. official told me. “There is also no president who would have left them so few options for addressing this.” The challenge has been compounded by M.B.S. himself—the sort of ruthless, dominant strongman who has proved irresistible to Trump. But Trump wasn’t the only American to fall under the crown prince’s spell, or to be manipulated by his aggressive tactics.
In September 2016—the twilight of the Barack Obama administration—Joseph Westphal touched down in the Saudi Arabian port city of Jeddah. Westphal, the United States ambassador to Saudi Arabia at the time, planned to meet with Mohammed bin Nayef, then the Saudi crown prince. But much to his surprise, the diplomat was picked up at the airport by an escort sent by Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who then took him to meet with the brash, favorite son of King Salman bin Abdulaziz. The incident, which was recounted to me by two former U.S. officials, thrust Westphal, against his and the Obama administration’s will, into the center of Saudi succession politics and left U.S. officials scrambling to re-assert neutrality in the increasingly public battle for power within the royal family. But among diplomats and officials familiar with the episode, in hindsight, it was also a harbinger of M.B.S.’s reckless ambition. “This is not the sort of thing that members of the Saud family do to foreigners, let alone foreign ambassadors,” one of the U.S. officials said of the episode. “He has been busting precedents and breaching traditions from the earliest days.”
Reflecting back on the airport scene, and given King Salman’s seemingly unwavering support for his son, it is hard to envision any other conclusion to the contentious Saudi power struggle than the ascension of M.B.S. But it is also hard not to question whether Khashoggi, the Saudi dissident who was gruesomely murdered at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul by a kill team last month, would be alive today if Trump hadn’t arrived in Washington.
The Jeddah incident laid bare the intention of M.B.S. to back the Obama administration into a corner. But the Trump administration willingly took up that position, no strong-arming necessary. “You turn the page and you have the Trump administration, and that consolidation on the Saudi side is unfortunately matched by this narrowing of the channel to Jared Kushner, of all things,” the second U.S. official said. “Let me just say, that is not a healthy place to be for the U.S. government because you’ve lost influence, you’ve lost eyes onto things that more seasoned professionals would see as canaries in the mine shaft.” The first official echoed the sentiment. “It all comes down to the fact [of] giving the relationship to a rookie, to Jared,” they told me. “We would never have been in [this] situation before. . . . This administration has just thrown out so much of our tool kit.”
The Khashoggi outrage is not likely to blow over. “I think that there are a lot of people on Capitol Hill—in the Senate and in the House; Democrats and Republicans— who believe that when it comes to Saudi Arabia, we ought to stop being a cheap date,” Democratic Congressman Jim McGovern of Massachusetts told me. “There ought to be consequences not only for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, but also for the horrific war that they are waging against the people of Yemen. . . . We ought to be debating this issue, we ought to be making clear to the Saudis that human rights does matter.”
But even if congressional Republicans sit on their hands until the new year, when Democrats take the House, it is wishful thinking that people will forget about M.B.S. and Khashoggi. After all, at the end of the month, Trump will likely be forced to confront the situation head-on. Given the diminishing health of King Salman, M.B.S. is expected to attend the G20 summit in Buenos Aires next week in his stead. Every year at the summit there is an obligatory meet-and-greet and accompanying photo session between all the world leaders, and M.B.S.’s planned attendance has already been cast as a challenge to the international order. The inevitable Trump-M.B.S. photo-op will be a picture that’s worth a thousand words.