Saudi Arabia is a “spectacular ally” whose leader may have commissioned the murder of a journalist with legal resident status in the U.S., President Donald Trump said Saturday.
The CIA has concluded that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) personally ordered the killing of Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul earlier this fall, the Washington Post reported Friday. But Trump said the US intelligence agency hasn’t told him so personally yet, and continued to withhold judgment in a brief exchange with reporters on the White House lawn Saturday.
“As of this moment we were told that he did not play a role,” Trump said.
“[The Saudis] give us a lot of jobs and a lot of business and economic development. They have been a truly spectacular ally in terms of jobs and economic development.”
The comments continue Trump’s particularly awkward version of the diplomatic foxtrot any president would have to perform after a longtime ally is shown to have murdered a journalist on foreign soil.
The Saudis’ choice to kill the critic inside Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkey further complicates the dance facing U.S. foreign policy actors, as Erdogan’s tilt toward authoritarianism over the past half-decade overlays Turkey’s key role in international attempts to resolve the civil war in Syria.
However challenging the Khashoggi murder would be to the U.S. in a vacuum, the particular character of this presidency kinks the hose even further.
Trump has bragged about making tens of millions of dollars in real estate sales to Saudi interests. Those business relationships to the kingdom are ongoing, and Trump has refused to erect a barrier between his duties to the country and his wallet. Like his old buddies in the professional wrestling world, Trump has looked to avoid upsetting those profitable relationships by tempering what might have been a more forceful official response from a different administration.
Early in the controversy, the White House had seemed to offer the Crown Prince an alternative narrative about Khashoggi’s fate, despite mounting evidence that MBS had sent close associates to Turkey to greet the longtime journalist with a bone saw.
Trump’s downplaying of reports that the CIA has determined MBS personally ordered the murder is only the latest in a string of conciliatory gestures from the top of US officialdom that run counter to conclusions drawn elsewhere in the government.
But the “spectacular ally” line is perhaps only the second most egregious example of Trump’s shattering of the U.S. international human rights and law reputation from Saturday alone.
He also denied reports his administration is considering plans to kidnap Erdogan critic Fetulleh Gulen from his Pennsylvania residence and ship him off to Turkey to be punished by the regime — an idea the Turks first tried to plant in his brain via then-senior adviser Michael Flynn in the closing stages of the 2016 campaign.
More than two years after that first entreaty from Erdogan’s allies, NBC News reported this week that the illegal and shocking scheme has resurfaced as a way to mollify Erdogan’s wrath about Khashoggi by handing over Gulen.
Diplomacy famously contorts and complicates all who engage in it. But this president having to officially, personally, and publicly deny that he’s brainstorming through a two-wrongs-make-a-right foreign policy illustrates how quickly the U.S.’s carefully cultivated international reputation has been shaken.