Twenty days after Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi went into a Saudi consulate in Istanbul and never came out again, the official story continues to shift. And so does the response from Donald Trump. Meanwhile new, highly disturbing details have been added to a story of a man tortured and murdered while seeking documents for his upcoming wedding.
On Sunday, the Saudi government moved away from calling Khashoggi’s death “accidental” and for the first time employed the term “murder.” As CNN reports, that admission comes as new security videos show that one of the team sent to assassinate Khashoggi did something both odd and chilling—he wore the clothes of the man his team had just murdered and dismembered.
One member of the 15-man team suspected in the death of Jamal Khashoggi dressed up in his clothes and was captured on surveillance cameras around Istanbul on the day the journalist was killed, a senior Turkish official has told CNN.
This one member of the Saudi team which arrived in Istanbul appears to be approximately the same age and size as Khashoggi. The other members of the team were all military members or bodyguards in their 20s or 30s. This suggests that the man wearing Khashoggi’s clothes was sent there for this specific purpose—to appear on security cameras after the murder in hopes of spreading the idea that Khashoggi had been seen after leaving the consulate. The murderer arrives at the consulate wearing casual clothing and a blue checked shirt, and departs wearing Khashoggi’s suit and dark shirt.
The Saudi government started by claiming that Khashoggi had exited the building safely just minutes after he entered. Confronted by the lack of security camera footage, they insisted that Khashoggi had, for unspecified reasons, left through a back door. When that story didn’t satisfy, the government claimed to have no idea what had happened to the journalist. That included stating that the 15 special operations fighters who arrived on a pair of planes, went to the consulate, then returned to the airport the same day, were simply “tourists.” After that, the Saudis floated the proposal that Khashoggi had been the victim of “rogue killers,” a theory that Donald Trump was happy to repeat to reporters. Finally, last week the Saudis admitted that Khashoggi had been “detained and questioned” when he stepped into the consulate. That story eventually grew into assertions that the 59-year-old Khashoggi, all on his own, became involved in “a fist fight” with the 15 special operations fighters who arrived in Istanbul.
The Saudi government has now admitted that Khashoggi was murdered inside the consulate. But they have not produced the body, or explained the multiple lies passed out in the days following his death. An official committee has been created to “investigate” the murder, but that committee is being headed by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is also the chief suspect.
Both the murder and the Saudi reaction are drawing fresh fire from members of Congress, and the heat around the issue has grown to the point where even Donald Trump is … almost concerned. But while representatives and senators from both parties are demanding action and information, there are still plenty of such demands that manage to be astoundingly tone-deaf.
A journalist was killed and dismembered, but according to Marco Rubio, the real victim here is Donald Trump—the man who has uniformly supported the murders. That’s an astounding level of self-centered ignorance. Not to mention sickeningly perverse.
The New York Times that Trump himself has edged slightly closer to condemning the Saudi’s state-sanctioned assassination. But he’s still hoping against hope for some way to come out of this without taking action or saying anything bad about his friend—and Jared Kushner’s close associated—bin Salman. After previously stating that the Saudi story of an accidental death was credible, Trump has backed away.
Trump: Obviously, there’s been deception and there’s been lies. Their stories are all over the place.
But while recognizing the obvious shifting nature of the Saudi narrative, which includes two weeks of failing to admit that a man was dead, when he was killed in their consulate, in front of the consul, by a team of Saudi hit men, Trump is still unwilling to lay blame when it comes to bin Salman.
Trump: Nobody has told me he’s responsible. Nobody has told me he’s not responsible. We haven’t reached that point. I haven’t heard either way.
USA Today reports that the Turkish government is preparing to release more details from the information they have gathered on the Khashoggi killing. That information could include audio that demonstrates that Khashoggi was killed within minutes of entering the consulate, with the Saudi consul looking on. Turkish President Recep Erdogan is prepared to use the material in an upcoming speech. Erdogan, another oppressive authoritarian leader who has jailed more journalists than any other country, including Russia, sees the clumsy murder of Khashoggi as a chance to counter growing Saudi power within the region and to push back against the personal authority of Mohammed bin Salman.
The Financial Times is one of several sources indicating that the furor around Khashoggi’s death could actually be a threat to bin Salman’s position and the stability of the Saudi government and royal family. Since conducting his own mini-coup in 2017, in which he placed himself at the front of the line of succession in place of two others who were officially next in line, then jailed, exiled, or executed hundreds of potential rivals or opposition leaders, bin Salman emerged on top. But his support is not exactly broad and even those who have supported him so far know that his loyalties are suspect. In attempting to fix blame for the Khashoggi murder, bin Salman appears ready to throw two of his most constant companions under the bus—which isn’t exactly winning him fresh converts.
The distrust of bin Salman is extending into financial sectors. Not only are companies and international investors avoiding the upcoming Saudi financial conference, they’re also less eager to put their money into the Public Investment Fund headed by bin Salman.
The scandal triggered by the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist, has put the PIF, like its patron, in jeopardy of losing its lustre. Amid macabre reports of the journalist’s killing, the fund has become a glaring example of the potential economic damage for the kingdom as Riyadh grapples with Saudi Arabia’s biggest diplomatic crisis with the west since the September 11 attacks on the US in 2001.
Investors have also not been impressed by bin Salman’s “anti-corruption campaign.” Despite drawing praise from Donald Trump, much of that campaign has consisted of simple extortion. For instance, bin Salman locked up over 300 wealthy Saudis in a Riyadh hotel last November and held them until they coughed up both pledges of loyalty and wads of cash and property, which became “gifts” to bin Salman.
It’s still extremely unlikely that Mohammed bin Salman will be ousted as the leader of Saudi Arabia. Or that the United States will significantly reduce its support for the repressive kingdom. But the murder of Jamal Khashoggi is rocking the stability of relationships on both sides of the planet, and perhaps that’s not a bad legacy.