Donald Trump with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia, White House, March 14, 2017 (Mark Wilson/Getty)
Donald Trump pushes back CIA blame of Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman over the killing and dismemberment of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi last month.
On Friday reports were leaked to US media that the CIA has concluded with “high confidence” that Mohammad bin Salman, the day-to-day Saudi ruler, had ordered the despatch of 15 personnel to kill Khashoggi on October 2 in the Saudi Consulate in Ankara.
The reports said Khashoggi, who had challenged the Saudi monarchy in a series of commentaries, was lured to the consulate by promises of safety as he collected a document needed for his forthcoming marriage. The promises were allegedly given by Prince Khaled bin Salman, the Crown Prince’s brother and the Saudi Ambassador to the US.
The CIA’s conclusion was based not only on Turkish audio surveillance of the consulate but on American electronic intelligence, according to sources.
Trump said on Saturday that he has spoken with CIA Director Gina Haspel and that there will be a “very full report” by Tuesday. But aides said Trump is already looking for ways to to avoid blaming Mohammad bin Salman.
Speaking to reporters in California, Trump challenged the press reports of the CIA’s conclusions: “They haven’t assessed anything yet. It’s too early.”
After the first Turkish claims that Khashoggi had been murdered, Trump insisted that the US priority is a $110 billion arms sale to Riyadh, announced during his high-profile visit to Riyadh in May 2017. He maintained the line as the reports of the CIA findings emerged, saying that Saudi Arabia has been important for US jobs and growth.
Trump is also likely to be personally invested in Mohammad bin Salman’s future. His son-in-law Jared Kushner is the main US connection with the Crown Prince.
And the Trump Administration, pursuing regime change in Iran, relies on the Saudi monarchy for support. Riyadh is essential in providing oil to cover reduction of Iranian exports by US sanctions.
State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert issued a statement Saturday that implicitly rejected the CIA’s findings about the Saudi Crown Prince:
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 will continue to seek all relevant facts. In the meantime, we will continue to consult Congress, and work with other nations to hold accountable those involved in the killing of Jamal Khashoggi.
The statement gave cover for Trump’s assertion to reporters: “As of this moment, we were told that [Mohammad bin Salman] did not play a role; we’re going to have to find out what they say.”
In a sign of the battle within the White House, the official responsible for US policy toward Saudi Arabia resigned on Friday evening.
Kirsten Fontenrose, the National Security Council’s director for the Persian Gulf region, had pushed for tough measures against the Saudi regime, and had been in Riyadh to discuss the American sanctions imposed in recent days against those identified as responsible for the killing. She successfully pressed for the addition of Saud al-Qahtani, a top adviser to Mohammed bin Salman, to the list.
According to two sources, Fontenrose clashed with her superiors at the NSC upon her return.