On October 2, Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi walked into the Saudi embassy in Istanbul, Turkey, to complete some paperwork so he could marry his Turkish fiancé. His fiancé waited for hours at the embassy gate, but he never came back out.
Khashoggi was a legal U.S. resident living in Virginia and wrote a regular Washington Post foreign policy column highly critical of the Saudi Arabian government — whom both Turkish and U.S. government officials believe carried out the hit. The assasination has grabbed global attention, and, incredibly but predictably, now appears to have implicated the Trump administration — and Jared Kushner specifically — who cultivates a close and almost certainly corrupt transactional relationship with Saudi Arabia’s 33-year-old Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salam (known as MBS).
The actual murder plot (we can by this point, nine days later, concur with U.S. and Turkish officials and assume that Khashoggi is dead) is straight out of a Tarantino movie. Officials connected to the investigation told The Washington Post that the morning Khashoggi was killed, a team of Saudis flew from Riyadh to Istanbul, where they checked in to two international hotels a short drive from the consulate. A Turkish official told the New York Times separately that investigators have evidence the Saudi team — which in total comprised as many as 15 people — killed Khashoggi in the embassy two hours after he arrived, then used a bone saw — wielded by a Saudi coroner flown in for the purpose — to dismember his body, likely to make it easier to move.
The Saudi government, of course, denies the charges. In an email to Vox, one official wrote, “Jamal’s disappearance is a matter of grave concern to us, and we categorically reject any allegations of involvement in his disappearance.” Other officials, presumably through suppressed laughter, said Khashoggi had left the consulate on his own, unharmed.
President Trump — surprise, surprise — also took a more circumspect view. Well, he had no view at all, really, telling reporters at a White House conference on Monday, “Hopefully that will sort itself out. Right now nobody knows anything about it.” On Wednesday, Trump — who apparently didn’t bother to use his unfettered access to the world’s most powerful intelligence apparatus after publicly admitting knowing nothing about a situation described by major media outlets in great detail — had expanded his analysis, telling reporters it now appears Khashoggi “went in and it doesn’t look like he came out. And it looks like he’s not around.” Trump vowed to “get to the bottom of it.”
That’s absurd. Trump’s intelligence team almost certainly had briefed him on those details. We can deduce this because get this: The U.S. had its own evidence that Saudi royals were behind the assassination. According to The Washington Post, U.S. intelligence picked up communications between Saudi officials discussing a plot to lure Khashoggi back to Saudi Arabia — the dissident had been living for a year in self-imposed exile in the U.S. — where they apparently planned to capture him. It’s not yet clear whether the Saudis had articulated a plan to kill Khashoggi or just arrest him, but the way this played out, I don’t think we need to break our brains over that one.
The U.S. government has a “duty to warn” people such as Khashoggi if they have reason to believe they’ve become targets. But we don’t know whether the administration alerted Khashoggi, who, if we had warned him, then would have gone ahead in spite of the threat. That seems incredibly unlikely. It’s more plausible the intelligence hit a bottleneck, be it procedural or sinister, somewhere in the Trump administration.
And it can’t be overstated: Trump’s continual attacks on the free press as the “enemy of the people” create an environment permissive of state violence against journalists. You can draw a straight line. Bare minimum, Trump has refused to take control of this moment and stand up for journalists, which is disgusting — all the more so in this case, because Khashoggi is a U.S. resident and works for an American publication.
Recent reporting, though, strongly >suggests that Trump — who is beholden to the Saudis along with his son-in-law — is either giving the Saudis time to get their shit straight, or waiting for the situation to blow over or get eclipsed by the next massive scandal. But as reports about the investigation heat up, it grows less and less likely that it will happen.
And lo, the spotlight once again swings onto the smug, alopecic visage of young Jared Kushner.
Is Trump covering for the Saudis?
In any other reality the murder of a journalist, let alone a U.S. resident, would also draw a rebuke from the White House, likely followed up with something punitive. For instance, here’s what the baseline-competent Mike Pence had to say: “Deeply troubled to hear reports about Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi. If true, this is a tragic day. Violence against journalists across the globe is a threat to freedom of the press & human rights. The free world deserves answers.”
And indeed, political leaders and journalists around the world have denounced the Saudis for the assassination. It was even far enough outside the norms of international relations that it drew bi-partisan condemnation from members of Congress. Republican Senator Bob Corker tweeted, “Our thoughts are with #JamalKhashoggi’s family and colleagues at the @washingtonpost. I have raised Jamal’s disappearance personally with the Saudi ambassador, and while we await more information, know we will respond accordingly to any state that targets journalists abroad.” Senator Chris Murphy, Democrat from Connecticut, echoed his colleague: “If this is true — that the Saudis lured a U.S. resident into their consulate and murdered him — it should represent a fundamental break in our relationship with Saudi Arabia.”
In contrast to Trump’s imbecility — both feigned and real — these forceful bipartisan statements underscore how weirdly isolated he is here. It’s only logical, then, to wonder why he’s quite literally the only voice at the top of the U.S. government protecting the Saudis.
Some thoughts on that.
The Kush Lyfe
Before we try to nail this to the board, we need a few facts to work from.
First, Kushner has a close relationship with the Saudi royals — and MBS in particular — that’s known to be corrupt. For instance, in October 2017 Kushner made a surprise visit to Riyadh to meet with Prince MBS.The prince, a fairly young guy, uses superficial PR stunts (such as granting women the right to drive) to portray himself as a democratic reformer, but is in reality, an aspiring authoritarian who arrested and executed dissidents (including members of his own family) in order to consolidate power. The visit came a few months before Kushner lost his top-secret access to the most extensive and sensitive U.S. intelligence by lying on hundreds of government forms — apparently discussed with MBS, by the prince’s own admission, the names of Saudis disloyal to him.
In March, MBS was invited to the White House.
Second important fact: Despite striking a $110 billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia last year, the Trump administration has still not appointed an ambassador to the kingdom. (We also don’t have an ambassador to Turkey.)
Third: All this despite 15 of the 19 September 11 hijackers being Saudi nationals.
And I repeat myself, but most importantly: The U.S. had information about a Saudi plot against Khashoggi before the assassination.
So it’s really weird, but also not surprising, that when reports spread of the Saudi government’s links to the assassination, MBS immediately demanded a call with Kushner and National Security Adviser John Bolton. The White House press office released a statement confirming the call, and said the State Department had followed up. The statement clarified little else.
But it’s not just Kushner beholden to the Saudis. It’s Trump, too.
In May 2017, on his first ever international trip, Trump signed a $110 billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia. This came about half a year after President Obama froze U.S. weapons sales in response (criminally overdue) to a drumroll of war crimes the Saudi government had visited on civilians during the war in Yemen, using American weapons systems. The U.S. still backs Saudi Arabia in that devastating war, selling them billions upon billions of dollars in weapons, providing intelligence assistance, and refueling their planes.
The United States’ warm relationship with the Saudi government has always been self-contradictory — they’re a draconian monarchy but we use them to counter Iran — but Trump has taken it to a new realm of hypocrisy, and for it has been criticized by politicians on the left and right alike.
Also — shocker — during the 2016 campaign, Trump registered eight companies in Saudi Arabia. In addition to that, the Crown Prince stayed at Trump International Hotel in New York during his visit this spring. The hotel’s general manager said in a letter to investors this spring that thanks to “a last-minute visit to New York by the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia,” Trump International turned in a 13 percent increase in revenue for the first quarter of 2018.
Nothing to see here, folks.
Look, here’s the golden rule if you want to analyze anything the Trump administration does: everything is either the product of stupidity or corruption — which of course aren’t mutually exclusive. In the end, we have several reasons to doubt whether Trump cares about this at all, some of which imply the administration is at the least complicit in the assassination.
A) Trump is lazy and can’t be bothered with issues that involve complicated names, particularly Arabic ones.
B) attacks on the free press, up to and including murder, don’t register with him as proxy attacks on democracy — particularly if Trump perceives the outlet as an “enemy,” as he does with Khashoggi’s former employer.
C) Trump knows that if he looked with any depth into the allegations, he’d have to square it with his transactional love affair with the Saudi royal family, with whom both he and his son-in-law have an unbelievably corrupt relationship. And with whom Trump once shared an orb. Which come to think of it might come in useful here.
This story isn’t over: It’s not unlikely that we might soon find out the U.S. government was involved in, or at least facilitating, a coverup of a state-backed assassination.