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.
Read: The U.S. loved the Saudi crown prince. Not anymore.
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.