The Khashoggi Affair: A View From 40,000 Feet

In this post, I’m going to take a 40,000-foot view of the Khashoggi affair, to clarify some things as the Trump propaganda machine swings into action.

Jamal Khashoggi was a citizen of Saudi Arabia and resident of the United States. He was a critic of the Saudi regime and a columnist for the Washington Post. On October 2, he entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul and has not been seen since. A 15-man Saudi group, including a forensic pathologist with a bone saw, entered Turkey just before Khashoggi disappeared and left just afterwards. The Saudi consul has left Turkey and has not been available to the press. Evidence is available that suggests that Khashoggi was tortured, killed, and dismembered.

Official statements from the Saudi government have denied that they had anything to do with Khashoggi’s probable murder. Government statements have also threatened economic and political retaliation.

The Turkish government has some information about what happened in the Saudi consulate. They have been dribbling it out with the apparent intention of embarrassing the Saudis.

The United States might be expected to be a mediator between Turkey and Saudi Arabia and to press for information about Khashoggi’s fate. President Donald Trump has now almost admitted that it is probable that Khashoggi is dead, but he has vacillated about how that might have happened, bringing in the implausible idea that “rogue killers” might have been responsible. He has said he accepts the Saudi denials.

Trump dispatched Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to Riyadh to speak to King Salman and his son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), who runs the country. Pompeo has said that he did not see Turkey’s evidence, but media reports are that he did and brought copies back to the United States. Trump has now tweeted that this is “FAKE NEWS.” Other media reports conflict with Pompeo’s words and each other as to what was said in the meeting with MBS. Pompeo’s jolly smiles and exuberant handshakes in the official photos seem out of place.

Conservatives have started a whispering campaign to the effect that Khashoggi was a bad guy. Whispering campaigns of this type have been precursors to justifying otherwise unjustifiable Trump stands.


That’s what has happened so far. A few qualifications and reservations.

Much of the information we have about what happened to Khashoggi comes from the Turkish government. They have their own agenda and no great love for the Saudis. Their stories have changed in detail. But the overall story remains the same.

The media and apparently the intelligence community do not have enough evidence to state that MBS ordered Khashoggi’s murder. The structure of Saudi Arabia suggests that he must have been involved.

Mike Pompeo has been widely criticized for his genial manner in the official pictures. I wonder if it isn’t that Pompeo has developed reflexes as a gladhanding politician that are serving him poorly. He reaches out to shake a hand, and the smile comes automatically. In any case, not good optics.

Trump, despite his recent denials, has long had connections to Saudi Arabia. He made Jared Kushner his primary connection to MBS. Recent revelations connected to the Mueller investigation show a multitude of Saudi ties to events around the 2016 election.


Where do we go from here? There is no good outcome for either Trump or MBS in admitting to the truth. They are fuzzing the message, hoping that attention to Khashoggi’s murder wanes. Trump’s love of a bigger crisis to mask the current crisis is a danger.

A complete denial from MBS seems impossible. The Saudis and the Trump administration have been floating trial balloons relating to blaming someone else. The very public way in which these balloons have been floated seems to be an admission that they are trying to cover something up and are willing to let us know they’re doing that. It’s consistent with Trump’s mode of operation or that of an absolute monarch. “We can do this because we can.” It’s an assertion of power.

But even the balloons are damning. They admit that Khashoggi was tortured, murdered, and dismembered. They merely try to cut the connection to MBS or soften it. They are likely to be met with popular and media skepticism. (Aaaannnnddd…it looks like a story is being released, so I’ll post this now!)

If Trump were to face up to the enormity of the attack on Khashoggi, he would have to make a statement about freedom of the press and Saudi responsibility for this act. He would have to invoke some kind of punishment – ending arms sales or sanctions, for example. He clearly does not want to do this.

A few senators have made strong statements calling for consequences against Saudi Arabia. On the Republican side, they are the usual suspects who get in line once Trump states a position. The Democrats have no power to force anything on Trump.

The longer Trump and MBS go without addressing the situation, the more culpable they are. But Trump may be right that the longer he can string this out, the less likely the public will insist on action. The Republican slime machine will make Khashoggi into a dubious character, and the press will go along.

That will leave us with a president who is an accessory to a particularly gruesome murder, likely because of his personal financial connections to the perpetrators. On campaign, he said he could kill someone on Fifth Avenue in New York City, and he would still have support. That would seem to be the next step.


Cross-posted at Balloon Juice.


  1. p.a. · October 20, 2018

    What are the Turkey/KSA dynamics? Regional hegemony (with Iran the other player? Historically Russia too, but I think the religious difference hinders Russian desires.)? How does T/KSA rivalry impact Turkey’s NATO membership and other NATO states, the US specifically of course. How much Trump corruption/favoritism towards KSA would the ‘deep state’/foreign policy institutions accept? (Not that E’s Turkey is a shining example of democracy in action…)


    • Cheryl Rofer · October 20, 2018

      I don’t fully understand Turkey’s role in this. I’ve read a couple of articles that have helped. Oversimplification: Turkey is a (relative) modernizer in the region, and KSA is a medieval monarchy. I hope to do another post on regional dynamics soon.


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