The G20 has already produced one of the most indelible visuals in recent geopolitical history and it does not feature Donald Trump or Xi Jinping.
Rather, it stars Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Vladimir Putin, seen below either greeting each other at a gathering of world leaders in Buenos Aires or else showin’ love at a swap meet in Crenshaw – I’m not entirely sure which.
You can write your own captions there (I did), but suffice to say those are two people who pretty clearly believe the White House no longer serves as a check on their international sway.
The Trump administration has of course come under tremendous pressure over the past two weeks for the President’s refusal to accept the assessment of Turkish intelligence and the CIA with regard to Prince Mohammed’s culpability in the murder of Jamal Khashoggi.
We’ve provided blanket coverage of the Khashoggi story (the entire archive is available via the link) and to our surprise, the issue refuses to go away, much to the chagrin of the White House and, especially, Riyadh. To be clear, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan did his absolute best to turn this into an international incident and he was remarkably successful at parlaying what happened in Istanbul into a mini-geopolitical coup that benefited Ankara and helped turn the tide for Turkey just as it looked like the lira’s collapse was about to push the country into an economic crisis.
But without Washington’s support, there was a limit to what Erdogan could accomplish in terms of compelling a royal shakeup in Riyadh and Donald Trump has been steadfast in his wholly absurd efforts to contend that he and Mike Pompeo really aren’t sure whether Prince Mohammed actually ordered the extrajudicial killing of a Washington Post columnist.
It goes without saying that Trump knows Prince Mohammed was responsible and watching Mike Pompeo try to deny bin Salman’s culpability is almost painful considering Mike was the head of the CIA.
But here’s the thing: There’s not really a lot of “mystery” or intrigue here. This isn’t the Russia investigation. The reasons why Trump doesn’t want to hold the Crown Prince accountable are obvious and you don’t need a special counsel to discern them. In no particular order: Trump needs the Saudis to keep a lid on oil prices as the Iran sanctions bite, he views the Saudis as a valuable ally in the effort to turn the screws on Tehran and the Quds (which of course delights Israel), he has personal financial interests with the Saudis (and always has), the Saudis are buying billions in weapons from the U.S., the Saudis probably know a lot about Trump and Kushner that he’d rather not see made public and generally speaking, taking a hardline stance towards Prince Mohammed would embolden those within the royal family who would like to see him usurped, and the White House probably doesn’t want to have to deal with a coup in Riyadh.
That’s just all there is to this and we’ve been over every single one of those issues in exhaustive detail.
At this point, though, Congress is fed up with the Saudis. The Khashoggi murder gave lawmakers the excuse they needed to revisit America’s support for the war in Yemen and on top of that, the Senate is not particularly amused with Gina Haspel’s conspicuous absence from a briefing last week. So, lawmakers are going to force the issue by advancing legislation aimed at cutting off U.S. support for the Yemen debacle, a move that, if it ever clears all the hurdles on the Hill, would mark an epochal shift in relations between Washington and Riyadh.
Nobody on Capitol Hill is buying the notion that Prince Mohammed wasn’t behind the Khashoggi killing and the prospect that the White House is actively trying to prevent the CIA from telling Congress what the agency knows has some Senators fit to be tied.
Well, you can expect the backlash on the Hill to get worse because according to a bombshell Wall Street Journal article, the Crown Prince sent nearly a dozen messages to Saud al-Qahtani “in the hours before and after” Khashoggi’s murder.
That’s according to what the Journal describes as “a highly classified CIA assessment” which, presumably, is the CIA assessment that fingers bin Salman as the man with the plan – so to speak.
According to the CIA, the intercepts “seem to foreshadow the Saudi operation launched against Khashoggi”. The agency describes its confidence in Prince Mohammed’s culpability as “medium-to-high” and, ultimately, believes he “probably order[ed] his death.”
Yes, “probably”. Especially considering the fact that Saud al-Qahtani was the man on the other end of the phone when Maher Abdulaziz Mutreb said “Tell your boss the deed is done” after Khashoggi was dead. Mutreb himself has been photographed traveling with the Crown Prince on any number of occasions, including when he visited France, Spain, Houston and Boston, among other destinations.
Saud al-Qahtani and Maher Abdulaziz Mutreb were both sanctioned by Steve Mnuchin on November 15.
So now, we have Prince Mohammed sending 11 messages to Qahtani on the same day that Khashoggi was murdered.
Of course it doesn’t matter. Trump wouldn’t directly implicate bin Salman even if someone had him on wiretap saying, in English, “Salah busted out the bone saw right?”
Still, the Journal’s reporting is likely to further embolden lawmakers to put pressure on Trump and the Saudis and you can bet that sooner or later, more details from the CIA’s assessment are going to be made public – whether Trump likes it or not.