Over the past 24 hours, we learned precise details about what Turkish officials say happened to Saudi journalist and dissident Jamal Khashoggi when he disappeared two weeks ago — and how the Trump administration wants to sweep the issue under the rug.
On Tuesday night, the Wall Street Journal reported that Khashoggi was drugged and murdered inside Saudi Arabia’s Istanbul consulate on October 2 in the presence of a top Saudi official, according to Turkish sources and an audio recording. The New York Times reported on other details from the audio recording of the incident the following morning.
Also over the past two days, comments by both President Donald Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo indicate that the US will let Saudi Arabia investigate what happened to Khashoggi rather than getting involved themselves. That likely won’t lead to an independent outcome, but the administration won’t cast any blame until the probe is complete.
Put together, it appears that the Saudis murdered an American resident — and the American president will let it slide, at least for now.
Khashoggi was beaten, drugged, killed, and dismembered
It’s hard to know what, exactly, happened to Jamal Khashoggi, and rumors have swirled for weeks about the precise details. But new reports from the Wall Street Journal and New York Times provide the clearest picture so far.
Turkish authorities told the Journal that Khashoggi was killed mere minutes after walking into the Saudi consulate in Istanbul two weeks ago. Members of a Saudi 15-man security team tortured him, which included beating him up and cutting his fingers off. Khashoggi was also drugged, and eventually murdered in the office of the consulate’s chief, Mohammad al-Otaibi. The murder only took a few minutes, according to the New York Times.
“Do this outside. You will put me in trouble,” al-Otaibi reportedly said. “If you want to live when you come back to Arabia, shut up,” a member of the Saudi team that had traveled to Istanbul that morning shot back.
It’s possible that the agent was Saudi forensic specialist Salah al-Tabiqi, who the Wall Street Journal reported can be heard on the audio recording. He told the consul general to leave the room and for other people participating in the murder to listen to music, at which point al-Tabiqi proceeded to dismember Khashoggi’s lifeless body — including cutting his head off.
At no point was Khashoggi interrogated, according to the report. That counters a current Saudi effort to release a report in which Riyadh would claim the journalist was killed by accident during an interrogation gone wrong.
If the latest account is true — and it’s hard to know when Turkish officials are leaking information on behalf of the government — it’s a grisly, remarkable event that shows an immense level of premeditation on behalf of Saudi officials. And according to US intelligence revealed by the Washington Post, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman — better known as MBS — ordered an operation to kidnap Khashoggi and bring him back to Saudi Arabia.
The only way to know for sure is for an independent investigation to take place. At this point, it looks like that won’t happen — and the US seems to be fine with that.
Trump and Pompeo will let Saudi Arabia handle the investigation
Two recent interviews — one with the president and the other with the secretary of state — show how little pressure the US will put on Saudi Arabia to figure out what happened to Khashoggi.
For example, take what Trump told the Associated Press on Tuesday:
“[W]e have to find out what happened first,” Trump said in the interview conducted in the Oval Office. “[H]ere we go again with, you know, you’re guilty until proven innocent … We just went through that with Justice Kavanaugh. And he was innocent all the way.”
That’s a shocking way to put it. Even though America’s spies say Saudi royalty, and MBS specifically, are responsible for Khashoggi’s death, Trump dismisses that information in the same way he dismissed credible accusations that then-Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh sexually assaulted women in his high school days.
And on Monday, Trump had no problem speculating that perhaps “rogue killers” were at fault — not the Saudi regime.
Pompeo didn’t add any pressure on the Saudis during an interview with reporters on Thursday.
The Saudis “are determined to get to the bottom of it, and that they will conduct the report, and we’ll all get a chance to see it,” Pompeo said in Saudi Arabia after meeting with officials there on Wednesday, including taking smiling photos with MBS. “I don’t want to talk about any of the facts,” he added in response to a question about whether Khashoggi was dead or alive. “They [Saudi officials] didn’t want to either, in that they want to have the opportunity to complete this investigation in a thorough way.”
In other words, the US won’t blame Saudi Arabia until it completes the investigation. But if Saudi leadership had anything to do with Khashoggi’s potential murder, then it’s highly doubtful the final report will be an honest account of what happened.
That’s why Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island, the top Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, told reporters on Wednesday morning that others should conduct the probe.
“The first step, I think, is to determine exactly what happened,” he said. “That, I believe, requires a thorough international investigation — not something that the Saudis will do.”
Reed added that the US should consider restricting arms sales to Riyadh as punishment. But Trump has repeatedly said he doesn’t want to take any actions that could imperil a litany of arms sales to Riyadh that could total $110 billion.
It’s unclear if the Trump administration will strike a harder line after more details of what happened to Khashoggi come to light. But based on current US administration comments, Saudi Arabia may literally get away with murder.