Multiple U.S. officials have now listened to the audio provided by Turkey showing that Saudi operatives ambushed, captured, tortured, dismembered, then killed Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi. But while the audio evidence that the Saudi government directed a hit on a journalist within the supposedly safe space of a diplomatic consulate may seem damning, the Trump White House is ready to absolve Saudi leadership of any responsibility.
As the Washington Post reports, John Bolton is putting forth the audio as if it’s not evidence of a crime, but evidence of innocence.
U.S. national security adviser John Bolton said Tuesday that an audio recording of journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s death inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul did not appear to provide any link between the killers and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
By this, Bolton seems to mean that Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman is not present when someone pulls out scissors and begins cutting off Khashoggi’s fingers. And apparently the people in the recording do not stop in the middle of torturing and murdering the journalist to tell him whose orders they are following.
Except that they do. According to the New York Times, one of those involved, Maher Abdulaziz Mutreb can be heard making a phone call during the session. He instructs the person on the other end to “tell your boss” what’s going on with Khashoggi. According to Business Insider, Mutreb is an associate of bin Salman who sometimes serves as his bodyguard. Analysts have assumed that the “boss” he is referring to is bin Salman.
Bolton isn’t making that assumption. Because Donald Trump and Jared Kushner are both deeply tied to bin Salman. They’ve helped him seize power and solidify his base. Donald Trump made the non-existent weapons sale with Saudi Arabia the centerpiece of his ability to “cut deals” with foreign leaders. Bolstering bin Salman’s war in Yemen, where school buses of children are blown away by American bombs, is as close as Trump can currently get to his desired conflict with Iran.
Trump has made it clear that he doesn’t view foreign relations as something that happens between nations, but between individual leaders. And he’s not about to let the death of a journalist get in the way of his personal connection to Mohammed bin Salman. At the moment, the Kushner plan remains in effect—do nothing and let it blow over.
Kushner is right that bin Salman has already committed a string of atrocities. In a time when Trump races from one disaster to the next, the expectation that sitting around and just waiting for something else to distract from the grisly murder of a journalist inside the Istanbul consulate might not be a bad plan.
But it does have two things going against it: First, there’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. The Turkish autocrat has his own reasons for pushing back against bin Salman’s growing influence in the region. It’s to his benefit both to keep bad news in the news, and to do what he can to weaken bonds between bin Salman and the US.
Second, there’s the matter that Jamal Khashoggi wasn’t just a Saudi journalist. He was a Saudi journalist who was resident in the United States and a regular writer for the Washington Post. That combination means that his name is unlikely to simply evaporate from American front pages any time soon.
At this point, the Saudi Arabian government lured in a journalist to a supposedly trivial visit to a consulate, where he was to pick up paperwork needed for his wedding. A team of at least fifteen men captured him, beat him, tortured him, killed him. A body double was sent out wearing his clothes—not blood stained, so among the list of things done to Khashoggi, he was likely stripped naked before he was killed. The Saudi consul was present, watching the murder, and complaining about the mess.
The Saudi government then claimed that Khashoggi had left safely. Then that they didn’t know what happened. Then said he had died by accident. Then said he died in a fist fight.
Every bit of that wasn’t rumors that escaped through a press contact. Those were the official stories told by people who report directly to bin Salman. The same “boss” who was getting phone calls from the consulate in real time as the murder was happening.
Trump, and Kushner, and Bolton can pretend whatever they want. But this is blood—more blood—on bin Salman’s already very bloody hands. They don’t care. But hopefully House Democrats, and Americans in general, will.