President Donald Trump appears to be once again publicly questioning a determinative assessment by his own intelligence community on a vital national security issue.
Previously, Trump tried to discredit the intelligence community’s assessment that Russia attacked the U.S. presidential election with a series of targeted hacks. Now, Trump reportedly is skeptical about a CIA assessment reported Friday that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was behind the kidnapping, torture, assassination, and dismemberment of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul last month.
The Washington Post first reported that the CIA concluded the crown prince likely ordered Khashoggi’s assassination, based on multiple sources, including phone calls between the prince’s brother Khalid bin Salman and Khashoggi, and between a member of the 15-man hit squad and a top aide to Mohammed. Intelligence analysts—including CIA Director Gina Haspel—also have listened to an audio recording of the killing provided by the Turkish government and obtained through surveillance of the Saudi consulate where the attack occurred.
Additionally, the CIA says it’s nearly impossible that such a large operation would be carried out at a Saudi government consulate using government planes and diplomatic cover without the crown prince’s approval.
On Saturday, Trump said he would discuss the assessment with the CIA, claiming, “We haven’t been briefed yet,” according to the Post. But he has been briefed about the likely role Mohammed, a close ally of Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, played in the killing. Nevertheless, Trump privately “remains skeptical,” according to the report, and continues to seek ways to “avoid pinning the blame on Mohammed,” White House aides said.
In one of the phone calls cited by the CIA, Saudi security official Maher Mutreb allegedly called Mohammed aide Saud al-Qahtani from inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. He reportedly told the aide that operation had been completed, the Post reported.
Other intercepted calls between Prince Khalid, the Saudi ambassador to Washington, and Khashoggi allegedly show that Khalid helped lured the journalist to the consulate in Turkey, where he had hoped to pick up marriage documents. Khalid denied those accounts on Twitter, claiming he had never spoken to Khashoggi by phone.
A spokeswoman for the Saudi Embassy in Washington also strongly denied the CIA’s assessment.
But Saudi Arabia’s constantly evolving statements regarding Khashoggi’s assassination are laughable. The latest version seems to be that the crown prince did order Khashoggi’s abduction, but his death was somehow a bungled operation by “rogue” Saudi agents. Saudi officials now say Khashoggi was killed by tranquilizers before he was dismembered, according to The New York Times.
This week, a Saudi public prosecutor charged 11 people for their alleged involvement in the “rogue” operation, five of whom could face the death penalty.
And on Thursday, the U.S. Treasury Department announced sanctions against 17 people allegedly involved in the killing, freezing their assets and barring companies from doing business with them.
According to New York Times White House correspondent Mark Landler, “As evidence of MBS’s role in the Khashoggi killing piles up, Trump has dropped any pretense of faulting the Saudi prince,” he tweeted. Trump “once called it ‘the worst cover-up ever.’ Now, after CIA judgment, he says, ‘we were told that he did not play a role’ & calls Saudis a ‘spectacular’ ally.”
Another curveball was thrown on Saturday afternoon in a statement put out by the State Department. “Recent reports indicating that the U.S. government has made a final conclusion are inaccurate. There remain numerous unanswered questions with respect to the murder of Mr. Khashoggi,” the State Department said.
Well, that clears it up.
White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders added that Trump had spoken to CIA Director Gina Haspel and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo while en route to California to survey damage from the ongoing wildfires.