For the second time in his presidency, President Trump is dealing with the apparent targeting of a dissident at the hands of a despotic regime with which Trump has sought to curry favor. And even more than Russia’s alleged poisoning of Sergei Skripal in Britain, Jamal Khashoggi’s disappearance poses some impossible choices that are ripe for error.
To this point, Trump has been mostly — and understandably — cautious in talking about Khashoggi, a longtime journalist and Washington Post contributor who vanished while visiting the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. We simply don’t know enough for certain, and everything is extremely delicate.
But the evidence is increasingly pointing to a Saudi plot to make him disappear or kill him, and as The Post’s Shane Harris reported Wednesday night, it’s also increasingly pointing to the top of the Saudi government, and specifically to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman:
The crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman, ordered an operation to lure Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi back to Saudi Arabia from his home in Virginia and then detain him, according to U.S. intelligence intercepts of Saudi officials discussing the plan.
The intelligence, described by U.S. officials familiar with it, is another piece of evidence implicating the Saudi regime in Khashoggi’s disappearance last week after he entered the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. Turkish officials say that a Saudi security team lay in wait for the journalist and killed him.
The crown prince, a young leader known as “MBS,” has made great efforts to craft an image as a reformer and modernizer and to endear himself to the West. Part of that effort included a lengthy, coast-to-coast visit to the United States this year, where he was received warmly. Should the intercepts Harris described produce firmer evidence that he was behind Khashoggi’s disappearance or death, it would be an international incident and certainly test the U.S. alliance with Saudi Arabia.
And the specifics of it are almost a perfect storm.
Khashoggi, of course, is a journalist, and Trump’s history with journalists has been marred by occasional references to violence and regular allusions to “fake news” media being the “enemy of the American people.” In Khashoggi, Trump is tasked with seeking answers about a contributor to a newspaper he regularly lumps into those latter categories.
Khashoggi also wasn’t just a critic of the Saudi government; he was also a critic of Trump’s who cast doubt upon the president’s plans for the Middle East. On Nov. 15, 2016, shortly after Trump’s election, Khashoggi described the idea that Trump would bring about regional reconciliation in the Middle East as “wishful thinking.” Two days later, he suggested that Trump the candidate’s policies were contradictory and that nobody should expect him to govern more soundly than he campaigned.
That appeared to draw an official rebuke from the Saudis. Two days after the latter comments, on Nov. 19, the official Saudi Press Agency cited a source in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs distancing itself from Khashoggi: “The source affirmed that the author Jamal Khashoggi does not represent the government of Saudi Arabia or its positions at any level, and that his opinions only represent his personal views not that of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.” Shortly thereafter, Khashoggi’s long-running column in the Saudi-owned Pan-Arab newspaper Al Hayat stopped publishing.
The situation also presents Trump with a choice of what to do with another strategic partner with a poor human rights record. And Trump’s approach in these cases has almost always been equivocation, if not indifference.
He praised Chinese President Xi Jinping’s and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s consolidations of power. He has suggested that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s murdering of critics wasn’t much different from what the United States does. He has praised Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte for doing an “unbelievable job” in his drug war, which has involved thousands of extrajudicial killings. And he has shrugged off North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un’s repression by labeling him a “tough guy.”
Trump’s stance toward despots and authoritarians has generally been not to judge their conduct and suggest it’s a mere distraction from his dealmaking. And that’s also the case with Saudi Arabia, which Trump and his White House have treated warmly as a partner against Iran and on trade.
Even Thursday morning — after Harris’s report about MBS — it appeared clear that Trump would have a difficult time taking a hard line against the Saudis. During an appearance on “Fox & Friends,” he was asked what a Saudi assassination of Khashoggi would mean for U.S. relations. Trump said those relations were “excellent” and then launched into talking about military spending. As The Post’s James Hohmann notes, Trump has also resisted the idea of limiting Saudi arms sales.
And then there is the simple matter that intelligence isn’t always compelling for Trump, especially when he doesn’t want to believe it. Trump has questioned and undermined the U.S. intelligence community’s conclusions about 2016 Russian election interference for almost two years. Even in the case of Skripal, Trump was reportedly reluctant to go along with the rest of the West, as The Post’s Greg Miller reported in his new book.
Saudi Arabia may not rise to the level of a Russia when it comes to what Trump will tolerate. Trump has at times talked tough with them. But his comments thus far suggest that he’s not anxious to get tough. And both his personal history and the specifics of this case raise serious questions about whether he ever would.