There’s no nice way to put this, so I’ll just come right out and say it: Donald Trump is worried that if he puts pressure on Mohammed bin Salman over the alleged murder of Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi, the U.S. will lose a lucrative arms deal with Riyadh.
I know that sounds bad but … actually, there is no “but”. It’s just plain old bad.
Here’s what Trump said, while speaking to inquisitive reporters in the Oval Office on Thursday:
Got that? Trump doesn’t like it “even a little bit” that a journalist was murdered, then dismembered with a “bone saw” in retaliation for speaking ill of the Saudi monarchy.
But what Trump likes even less than journalists being chopped into pieces by 15-man assassination squads is the prospect of losing a $110 billion arms deal with the guy who put out the hit. That, Trump says, is “not acceptable.”
At this point, it is a near certainty that Khashoggi is not only dead, but extra dead, where that means his body parts have probably been dissolved in acid or else buried in Consul-general Mohammad al-Otaibi’s yard. What’s equally certain is that the U.S. government knew what was likely to happen to poor Jamal ahead of time.
On Wednesday, the Washington Post expanded on their original reporting, citing multiple sources with knowledge of the intelligence intercepts on the way to suggesting that at the very least, the U.S. was aware that bin Salman was in the process of trying to get his hands on Khashoggi.
Also on Wednesday, Turkish media with close ties to Erdogan (which is basically all Turkish media, because anti-Erdogan media isn’t really a thing anymore in Turkey, a fact that makes this whole situation extra ironic) released CCTV footage that showed the Saudi hit team arriving in Istanbul last week, maneuvering in an around the consulate, and then leaving the same day after dispensing with the “problem”.
Fast forward to Thursday, and Turkey turned up the heat some more, publishing a list of the 15 men Turkish intelligence say carried out the plan at the behest of bin Salman.
Obviously, it was insane for bin Salman to think he was going to be able to murder a high profile journalist with friendly ties to Erdogan’s advisers in the middle of Istanbul. The idea that the Saudis were going to get away with that or that Erdogan would let it slide without some kind of prearrangement, is so laughable that it boggles the mind.
Here’s what Thad Troy, a former senior C.I.A. operative with experience in Turkey told the Times for the article linked above:
The Turkish services are extremely capable, especially with regards to internal threats or incidents. The Saudis would have been extremely naïve to believe they could get away with this.
One has to wonder whether Turkey was apprised of this and then something went wrong later in terms of how to cover it up. It seems bizarre that Riyadh thought this was doable without Erdogan’s consent.
Whatever the case, the Post was out on Thursday evening reporting that Turkish officials have audio and video documenting Khashoggi’s torture and murder and have informed the U.S. government of the existence of that evidence. To wit, from the Post:
“The voice recording from inside the embassy lays out what happened to Jamal after he entered,” said one person with knowledge of the recording who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss highly sensitive intelligence.
“You can hear his voice and the voices of men speaking Arabic,” this person said. “You can hear how he was interrogated, tortured and then murdered.”
Of course Turkey is going to be a bit reluctant to share the actual video and audio because doing so could give away some of their spycraft, but at this point, it seems likely that if they have to share it with the U.S., they will, in order to prove the allegations leveled against the Saudi monarchy.
This puts Donald Trump in a real bind. On Wednesday, a bipartisan group on Senators invoked the Global Magnitsky Act in order to force the White House to launch an investigation. Bob Corker’s take is indicative of the mood on Capitol Hill:
As you can see from the clip of Trump shown here at the outset, the President is less than enthusiastic about locking horns with bin Salman.
I’ve generally tried to avoid making this point in previous posts about Khashoggi, but given Trump’s comments on Thursday, I guess there’s no point in beating around the bush anymore. Saudi Arabia uses the weapons it buys from the U.S. to lay waste to Yemen, where the Iran-backed Houthis have been fighting a protracted war of attrition against the Saudis since 2015.
The Saudi-led effort in Yemen has led to the deaths of countless civilians and brought untold suffering to the country. But nobody cares about all the people who have been slaughtered in Yemen. It’s much easier for people to empathize with Khashoggi, whose death might have been something of a wake up call to the world with regard to the fact that the Saudis are the opposite of the “good guys” in the Mideast.
But now, it looks like Trump is prepared to not only to let Khashoggi’s death go largely unpunished, but to openly say that the reason the U.S. can’t do anything about it is because Washington needs to make sure it can keep selling the Saudis the weapons they’re using to decimate Yemen.