Trump buys Saudi leader’s claim that he wasn’t involved in Jamal Khashoggi’s disappearance

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said he had nothing to do with Khashoggi’s possible murder. That’s good enough for Trump.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman knew of a plan to lure a prominent journalist and US resident to Saudi Arabia and detain him, according to US intelligence.

But the Saudi royal told President Donald Trump on Tuesday that he had no knowledge of what happened to Jamal Khashoggi, the journalist who has been missing for two weeks — and Trump believed him.

How do we know this? Trump just tweeted it.

“Just spoke with the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia who totally denied any knowledge of what took place in their Turkish Consulate,” Trump wrote, referring to Saudi Arabia’s consulate in Istanbul where Khashoggi disappeared on October 2.

The crown prince (known as MBS) “told me that he has already started, and will rapidly expand, a full and complete investigation into this matter. Answers will be forthcoming shortly,” Trump added in a second, threaded tweet.

That’s a remarkable statement by the president. It comes just hours after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who Trump said was on the call, met with MBS and other Saudi leaders to discuss the Khashoggi situation.

But now it seems Trump will let Riyadh — and the man allegedly responsible for an operation that led to Khashoggi’s murder — sweep the issue under the rug.

These kinds of tweets are in keeping with Trump’s apparent unwillingness to pin Khashoggi’s disappearance on the Saudis, despite emerging evidence. CNN reported on Tuesday afternoon that a Turkish official said Khashoggi’s body was cut up into pieces inside the Saudi consulate.

Trump has repeatedly said he doesn’t want to take any actions that could imperil a litany of arms sales to Riyadh that could total $110 billion. What’s more, he’s implied he doesn’t want to put the weapons deal on the line because Khashoggi was only a US resident, not a citizen. And on Monday, he said that perhaps “rogue killers” were at fault — not the Saudi regime.

One State Department official familiar with the matter told me that Pompeo’s real goal in Riyadh on Tuesday was to deliver Trump’s message that the US doesn’t really want to punish the kingdom for the Khashoggi incident.

“Pompeo focuses on what the president wants,” the official told me on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive talks, “and they seem to want a way to climb down” from punishing the country.

“It’s a terrible signal to send, but they seem intent on plowing ahead,” the official continued.

Trump is ignoring available evidence

The Washington Post’s Karen Attiah, who worked closely with Khashoggi, noted that much is already known about the Saudi threat to his life.

Indeed, US intelligence revealed by the Washington Post said that MBS ordered the operation to kidnap Khashoggi and bring him back to Saudi Arabia. That would make sense: MBS is the most powerful person in Riyadh and the subject of much of Khashoggi’s criticism. If anyone could authorize and pull off such a plan, it’s MBS.

And a publicly available State Department report on human rights from 2017 specifically mentions Khashoggi’s plight. The report used Khashoggi’s case to underscore how Saudi authorities “subjected journalists, writers, and bloggers to arrest, imprisonment, and harassment during the year.” The report continues:

In September well-known Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi said he moved to the United States in “self-exile” and “could face arrest upon returning home” due to his writing. He claimed his column in Saudi newspaper al-Hayat had been cancelled under political pressure. In 2016 authorities purportedly banned him from writing, appearing on television, and attending conferences as the result of remarks he made that were interpreted as criticizing the president of the United States, according to multiple media sources. Earlier, in July, authorities reportedly lifted the writing ban against him.

Trump, then, doesn’t need to listen to MBS. He just needs to read what his own government has written.