In the battle between Donald Trump’s gut and contradictory evidence, it’s a safe bet which will win the president’s favor. Days after major newspapers reported on a CIA assessment claiming that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered the killing of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the president declared his fulsome support for Saudi Arabia.
“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!” the president said in a statement. “We may never know all of the facts surrounding the murder of Mr. Jamal Khashoggi. In any case, our relationship is with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.”
In effect, even if, as reported, the CIA has “high confidence” in its conclusion about the crown prince’s culpability, Trump has bet big on Saudi Arabia and its young leader-in-waiting, and that has taken precedence.
Trump has clashed with his intelligence community before, most notably over Russian interference on his behalf in the 2016 presidential election.
“These are the same people,” he said of the CIA soon after he was elected, “that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.” He then famously resisted the formal public conclusion of the CIA, the FBI, and the National Security Agency detailing the same thing. (He has at various times, including under pressure, admitted to a Russian role in election meddling, and has also at various times backtracked.)
If Trump himself is doubtful about Russian interference, though, other parts of the government have been less so. The administration has repeatedly sanctioned Russians under Trump, and Special Counsel Robert Mueller has indicted individual Russians for their role in election meddling.
Trump has used strikingly similar terms to defend Russia and to cast doubt on the crown prince’s culpability in Khashoggi’s killing. Just as with Russian meddling, he has broached alternative explanations (a 400-pound guy in a basement may have been to blame in the Russia case, while “rogue actors” could have been responsible for Khashoggi’s death). He has declared the denials of the accused malefactors, whether Vladimir Putin or Mohammed bin Salman, credible. And at times he has invoked the unknowability of anything at all. Asked on Fox News whether the crown prince was lying about his involvement, Trump responded: “I don’t know, you know, who could really know?”
The White House’s Tuesday statement was striking for its implication that, whatever the truth of the crown prince’s involvement, it didn’t really matter.
Khashoggi disappeared from the Saudi consulate in Istanbul while retrieving documents he needed to get married. Almost immediately, reports, sourced to leaks from Turkish intelligence, began to cast suspicion on the Saudi crown prince, who has consolidated power in the Kingdom and cracked down on dissidents. But Khashoggi, who was once close to the royal family but has criticized aspects of the current regime, was not an internal dissident. He had left for the United States in 2017, and a friend of his told USA Today that he knew he couldn’t go back. Then the kingdom came for him.
The CIA’s conclusion, which the agency hasn’t formally made public but which unnamed sources have described to news outlets including The New York Times and The Washington Post, implicates the Saudi crown prince himself.
As far as what’s public knowledge so far, the closest thing to a smoking gun comes from reports in the Post and the Times that one of the conspirators called an aide to the crown prince following the killing, saying ”tell your boss” that the mission was done. (That phone call, an intercept of which the Times reported was shared with CIA Director Gina Haspel, does not mention MbS specifically.) Further public evidence for the link is circumstantial, and includes the structure of the Saudi system: Nothing as consequential as the interrogation or kidnapping of a high-profile, U.S.-dwelling dissident could have happened without bin Salman’s knowledge, the CIA reportedly believes.
This doesn’t necessarily prove MbS ordered the hit himself, nor does it exclude any alternative explanations. The Saudis have sought to provide a few, though the official story has shifted several times, from initial insistence that Khashoggi had left the consulate unharmed to a public admission he had been murdered, in what the Saudi foreign minister claimed was a “rogue operation.” The CIA has declined to comment publicly, and a Saudi spokeswoman told the Post that the “purported assessment” was false. For his part, Trump has also entertained a high-level Saudi role in the killing as one of many possibilities, and vowed “very severe” consequences if it was found to be the case.
The administration has already sanctioned 17 Saudi officials believed to have been involved in the killing, though not the crown prince. The kingdom has charged 11 people, and sentenced five to death, over their accused involvement in the killing, but continues to insist that the crown prince knew nothing about it. The murder has also focused attention on the Saudi-led war in Yemen and its disastrous humanitarian consequences; the U.S. has ended refueling support to the air campaign, while Congress is raising questions about future arms sales to Riyadh.
The CIA reportedly does not buy Saudi Arabia’s denials, but it’s not the CIA’s role to make policy. The Trump administration has made the kingdom a pillar of its entire Middle East strategy, and has invested in cultivating the young crown prince, who, if he succeeds his father as king, could lead the Middle East’s largest oil producer for many decades to come. The administration has stated that rolling back Iran’s influence in the Middle East is among its top priorities, and it sees Saudi Arabia as a key partner in that effort.
But if the response to the intelligence about Russian election interference is any indication, that’s not entirely up to Trump. Even if the president himself is reluctant to impose consequences, other parts of the government he leads can do it for him.