Published 10:11 PM EDT Oct 15, 2018
There's a dark truth behind the disappearance of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi into a Saudi Consulate in Turkey two weeks ago Tuesday. The only question is whether President Donald Trump can be trusted to expose it.
That's looking less likely. He has already lapsed into his unfortunate, recurring role as an apologist for brutal leaders who draw his favor.
There were inklings of this Monday after Trump spoke by phone with Saudi Arabian King Salman bin Abdulaziz and was assured that the missing journalist and American resident had not — as Turkish officials allege — been murdered by a Saudi assassin team, possibly on the orders of the king's son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
Trump seemed impressed with the king's disavowal: "His denial to me could not have been stronger. (It) was not only a denial, it was a very firm denial."
"Maybe these could have been rogue killers," Trump later told reporters, "Who knows?"
OPPOSING VIEW: Kingdom of Saudi Arabia rejects any attempts to undermine it
Sound familiar? Remember Helsinki in July and Vladimir Putin's assurances that Russia played no role in undermining American democracy in the 2016 presidential election: "I will tell you that President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today."
Back during the campaign, Trump argued that maybe "somebody sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds" interfered in the election. Of course, 25 Russians, including a dozen military spies, were later indicted for those crimes.
Trump was still making excuses for Russia on Sunday night's "60 Minutes," suggesting that China played a greater role in election interference. "Frankly," he said, "China is a bigger problem."
Where is Trump going with this misdirection? Evidence of Saudi Arabia's guilt in the disappearance of Khashoggi — whose columns were highly critical of the regime — is mounting by the day. Riyadh's official response, that the journalist left the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul unharmed, increasingly rings hollow.
Even the Saudis themselves might be abandoning this claim. CNN reports the kingdom will soon admit that Khashoggi died while being interrogated, but insist that the death was inadvertent.
This still might not be the whole truth. Turkish authorities have leaked evidence of a 15-member team flown to Istanbul the day Khashoggi went missing; and Turkish staff at a nearby consular's residence, where a part of the team drove after Khashoggi went missing, were told to take the day off. The Post reported that U.S. intelligence intercepted conversations where Saudi officials discussed plans to lure Khashoggi back to his country and detain him on orders of the crown prince. And Turkey says it has much more, including video and audio recordings of Khashoggi's murder.
The U.S. government must already have access to this material. Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker told CNN that "intel points directly" to Saudi Arabia. Doesn't Trump have the same proof?
Yet he keeps talking about waiting for more. "We're going to have to see," Trump said. He also ordered Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to Saudi Arabia and "other places if necessary" to get more answers.
The worry is that Trump is playing for time, perhaps hoping the nation's attention will wane as the U.S. midterm elections approach. He promises "severe punishment" if Riyadh is guilty but is quickly taking potential leverage off the table, including the sale of U.S. arms and munitions the kingdom desperately relies upon to continue its bloody war of attrition in Yemen that's killing thousands of civilians.
If Trump keeps stalling or worse, Congress must act, as it has in pushing tougher sanctions against Russia. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., expressed the right idea on NBC's "Meet the Press" Sunday: "Our ability to call Putin a murderer — because he is; our ability to call (Syrian President Bashar) Assad a murderer — because he is ... all of that is undermined and compromised if we somehow decide that because an ally (Saudi Arabia) who was important did that, we are not going to call it out."
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