- The CIA has reportedly concluded with high confidence that
Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman personally
ordered the killing of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi last
month, directly contradicting Riyadh’s denials that the crown
prince was involved.
- President Donald Trump was briefed on the agency’s findings
- The development raises a critical question for Trump: will he
accept his own intelligence agency’s assessment or Saudi
- Trump previously sided with Russia over the US intelligence
community, and if he did the same with Saudi Arabia, there would
be one key difference.
- “The CIA concluded with high confidence that [Crown Prince
Mohammed] ordered the assassination of a US resident,” said one
Middle East expert. “While [Vladimir] Putin stands behind many of
his critics’ assassinations, no intelligence agency, let alone
the CIA, has publicly stated he ordered the killings himself.”
The White House is in a bind following the CIA’s reported assessment that
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered the murder of
dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the kingdom’s consulate
in Turkey last month.
The crown prince was widely believed to have played a key
role in carrying out the Khashoggi killing even before the CIA
came back with its findings. The Saudi government denies the
allegation, and so far, President Donald Trump has mostly
accepted its narrative.
But the CIA’s finding, which was made in high confidence and
first reported by The Washington Post,
represents the most definitive US assessment to date directly
linking Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler to Khashoggi’s murder.
In light of that, Trump is faced with a critical question: will
he accept his own intelligence agency’s assessment or Saudi
CIA director Gina Haspel traveled to Turkey late last
month to address the investigation into Khashoggi’s death. She
met with Trump when she returned to the US a few days later, and
national-security experts said it was highly unlikely she didn’t
fill him in on what the agency had determined.
On Saturday morning, Trump told reporters he had not yet been
briefed on the matter.
Ned Price, the former senior director of the National Security
Council under President Barack Obama, told INSIDER the odds that
the CIA had high confidence in its assessment and yet did not
brief Trump right away “are virtually nil.”
“Both of these things almost certainly can’t be true,” he
Indeed, several Trump aides told The Post he had
already been shown evidence of the crown prince’s alleged
involvement in Khashoggi’s murder but was looking for ways to
avoid blaming him for the journalist’s death.
Later Saturday, the White House said Haspel and Secretary of
State Mike Pompeo briefed Trump on the CIA’s
assessment while he was en route to California.
The agency has also reportedly briefed Congress, which has
signaled that it will seek to punish Saudi Arabia for its
actions. As of Saturday evening, Trump had not publicly commented
on whether he trusted the CIA’s findings.
‘The Saudis have bought the man’
Robert Deitz, the former general counsel at the National Security
Agency, said the president’s silence was par for the course.
“When Trump is in a bind, he tends to temporize, and I think
that’s what’s going on here,” Deitz told INSIDER. “The bind is
this: Saudi Arabia is the mother of all arms buyers. They’re also
a very important Middle East ally. So how can the US hold [Crown
Prince Mohammed] and Khashoggi’s killers accountable while also
preserving the alliance? Because it’s very challenging for the US
to simply dump Saudi Arabia.”
After saying he hadn’t been briefed on the Khashoggi
investigation Saturday morning, Trump touted the US’s economic
ties to Saudi Arabia, calling the country a “great ally.”
“They give us a lot of jobs … a lot of business, a lot of
economic development,” he said.
While Saudi Arabia is an important economic partner, fact-checkers have pointed out
that the president often overstates the value of the alliance by
inflating the number of American jobs Saudi arms sales would
create and how much it would help the US economy.
Trump and his advisers have also stressed the strategic
advantages of a US-Saudi alliance, particularly when it comes to
containing Iran. But Middle East experts say that with or without
a partnership with the US, Saudi Arabia would still push back
against its neighbor because of roiling tensions between the two
countries that go back years.
Glenn Carle, a former CIA covert operative, offered a blunt
assessment of Trump’s response — or lack thereof — to the
“The main pillar of this administration when it comes to the
Middle East is that the president wants to make nice with [Crown
Prince Mohammed] and Saudi Arabia because he likes dictators and
because the Saudis have bought the man,” Carle told INSIDER.
Trump said last month that he has “no financial interests in
Saudi Arabia.” But during his presidential campaign, he boasted
about making “hundreds of millions” of dollars from Saudi
customers and said he would maintain close ties with the kingdom
because it invested in his properties.
Ultimately, Carle said, Trump will likely “pay lip service to how
killing is bad,” but will go back to business as usual by
supporting the crown prince and Saudi Arabia.
Randa Slim, the director of conflict resolution at the Middle
East Institute, echoed that view.
From the onset of the Khashoggi case, she told INSIDER, Trump
made clear that “maintaining a close relationship with the
de-facto ruler of Saudi Arabia will trump the need for justice
and accountability” for Khashoggi’s murder.
‘He doesn’t care if it’s an ally or an adversary; it’s all about
what supports his own personal interests’
If Trump were to continue trusting Crown Prince Mohammed over the
CIA after being briefed on the matter, it would be reminiscent of
his response to Russian President Vladimir Putin after the US
intelligence community concluded with high confidence that Russia
meddled in the 2016 election to elevate Trump to the presidency.
When Trump flew to Helsinki for a high-stakes meeting with Putin
over the summer, he shocked observers when he said
at a press conference that he trusted Putin’s denial of Russian
interference over US intelligence findings.
“The president has shown time and again that he will only agree
or praise or take note of something that supports his particular
perspective, and everything else he will either ignore or
denigrate,” Carle said. “Thus, his approach to the Saudis will be
the same as his approach to Russia. He doesn’t care if it’s an
ally or an adversary; it’s all about what supports his own
personal interests and beliefs.”
Trump, who has a long history of business ties to Russia, often
praises Putin and says it’s important for the US to get closer to
Russia so the two countries can cooperate on matters of mutual
interest, like counterterrorism.
He has faced resistance, however, from Congress and his own
administration, which continues approving sanctions and other
countermeasures against Russia even as Trump calls for a cozier
relationship with Moscow.
The looming quagmire with Saudi Arabia is similar, but with one
“The CIA concluded with high confidence that [Crown Prince
Mohammed] ordered the assassination of a US resident,” Slim said.
“While Putin stands behind many of his critics’ assassinations,
no intelligence agency, let alone the CIA, has publicly stated he
ordered the killings himself.”
John Haltiwanger contributed reporting.