Report

What Happened to Trump’s Khashoggi Report?

The president doubles down on his support for the Saudi crown prince without citing further evidence.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attends the Future Investment Initiative conference in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on Oct. 23. (Fayez Nureldine/AFP/Getty Images)
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attends the Future Investment Initiative conference in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on Oct. 23. (Fayez Nureldine/AFP/Getty Images)

In recent days, U.S. President Donald Trump again sought to undercut the assessment of his own intelligence community by saying that he expects a fuller report on whether Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, which is the conclusion of the CIA.

But no report has appeared. Instead, on Tuesday Trump issued a statement effectively repudiating the CIA’s assessment and letting Mohammed bin Salman off the hook, saying “we may never know all of the facts surrounding the murder.” The president, noting that the United States has “already sanctioned 17 Saudis known to have been involved in the murder of Mr. Khashoggi, and the disposal of his body,” also said: “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!”

Trump cited no new evidence. U.S. officials and congressional sources told Foreign Policy they were mystified by the president’s promises of an additional report, since they were not told of anything beyond the CIA’s firm assessment that Mohammed bin Salman was behind the intricate operation to lure Khashoggi into the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2 and have him killed. 

On Saturday, responding to news reports that the CIA had concluded the crown prince was responsible for Khashoggi’s murder, Trump said: “We’ll be having a very full report over the next two days, probably Monday or Tuesday.” He called the news accounts “premature.” The newer report would include “who did it,” Trump said.

But on Tuesday, even as the president issued his statement, no report appeared to be forthcoming from the White House, State Department, or CIA. An official within the intelligence community added that there was no information on such a new report. The National Security Council declined to comment.

“We don’t know what the president is referring to,” said a senior aide to Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), the ranking member on the House Intelligence Committee. An aide to Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), the vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said, “We have no idea what they’re talking about.” She added that if such a report existed, the relevant intelligence committees would have expected a briefing on it.

As the senior Democratic members on their respective committees, Schiff and Warner were among those briefed on the CIA’s conclusions about Mohammed bin Salman’s alleged complicity last Thursday.

Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, a Democratic member of the Intelligence Committee, called on CIA Director Gina Haspel and Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats to “to come out and provide the American people and the Congress with a public assessment of who ordered the killing of Jamal Khashoggi.” But a spokesperson for Wyden said he was also unaware of any additional, more comprehensive report. “The only thing we’ve heard are the president’s comments,” he said.

Trump has clearly indicated that he wants to continue a relationship with Mohammed bin Salman, since under his de facto rule Saudi Arabia is playing a major role in U.S. policy in aligning against Iran, and especially because the crown prince has pledged to buy U.S. arms worth more than $100 billion of dollars.

Indeed, in his extraordinary statement on Tuesday, Trump laid out one of the most naked and amoral declarations of American realpolitik—the idea that the United States is interested only in material and geopolitical benefit, and no longer cares to promulgate its values—of any president in U.S. history.

In his statement, Trump began by saying, “The world is a very dangerous place!” He pointed the finger at Iran, saying it “is responsible for a bloody proxy war against Saudi Arabia in Yemen, trying to destabilize Iraq’s fragile attempt at democracy, supporting the terror group Hezbollah in Lebanon, propping up dictator Bashar Assad in Syria (who has killed millions of his own citizens), and much more.” He then said “Saudi Arabia would gladly withdraw from Yemen if the Iranians would agree to leave. They would immediately provide desperately needed humanitarian assistance. Additionally, Saudi Arabia has agreed to spend billions of dollars in leading the fight against Radical Islamic Terrorism.”

Trump also reiterated, as he has often, that Saudi Arabia “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.”

In an interview with host Chris Wallace on Fox News Sunday, Trump said Mohammed bin Salman had told him “maybe five different times” that he was not involved in the murder of Khashoggi. Yet the Saudi Arabian government has already lied several times about its involvement, saying at first that it did not know of Khashoggi’s whereabouts, then that he was killed at the consulate but accidentally, and finally that the murder was “premeditated” but the work of rogue agents.

It would hardly be the first time Trump has summarily dispensed with U.S. intelligence assessments in favor of what he has been told by his counterparts overseas. Last July in Helsinki, Trump said at a joint briefing with Vladimir Putin that while he had “great confidence” in the U.S. intelligence community, the Russian president was “extremely strong and powerful in his denial” that Russia meddled in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

In the Khashoggi case, the CIA was unequivocal in assessing with “high confidence” that the crown prince ordered the killing of the journalist, who had been critical of his rule in columns for the Washington Post, according to several news reports. In a massive leak of classified information that suggested some congressional or intelligence officials were fearful Trump would try to soften the CIA’s assessment, the details were reported Friday by the Washington Post, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journaland the Associated Press.

According to the Washington Post, which reported the assessment first, the CIA examined multiple sources, including a phone call that the prince’s brother—Khalid bin Salman, the Saudi ambassador to the United States—had with Khashoggi, seeking to induce him to go the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, where he was killed.  The Post reported that Khalid bin Salman made the call at Mohammed bin Salman’s direction. It was intercepted by U.S. intelligence.

An earlier report based on an intercepted call said that a member of a Saudi assassination squad phoned a superior shortly after Khashoggi was murdered and told him “tell your boss” the mission was accomplished.

“We knew all this weeks ago,” said the Senate aide.

Despite Trump’s effort to salvage his relationship with Mohammed bin Salman, the pressure on him to further sanction the Saudi regime, including possibly the crown prince, is only likely to grow from both Democrats and Republican on Capitol Hill. The president may also find himself increasingly isolated abroad. Germany on Monday announced it has stopped exporting weapons to Saudi Arabia.

Michael Hirsh is a senior correspondent and deputy news editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @michaelphirsh

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