Until Oct. 2, Jamal Khashoggi was a legal resident of the United States, a columnist for The Washington Post and a critic of human rights abuses by Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the mercurial 33-year-old known as MBS.
That his targets included a middle-aged journalist is confirmed by intelligence intercepts. Days before the murder, at the direction of MBS, his brother ― the Saudi ambassador to the U.S. ― advised Khashoggi to obtain the marriage documents from the Saudi consulate, assuring him of his safety. Shortly after supervising the assassination, Mutreb called a top aide to MBS, Saud al- Qahtani, saying “tell your boss” that the mission was accomplished. Given that MBS rules with absolute authority, the CIA concludes that such a complex and risky operation ― involving 15 agents flying on government aircraft to execute a perceived enemy at a Saudi consulate on foreign soil ― would proceed only at MBS’ specific direction.
Nor would any serious observer put it past him. Granted, MBS initially swathed his megalomania in cosmetic reforms, such as allowing women to drive. Having forgotten his rapturous declaration that the Iraq war would democratize the Middle East, Thomas Friedman predicted that MBS’ reforms, if successful, “will not only change the character of Saudi Arabia but the tone and tenor of Islam across the globe,” and praised his “firehose of new ideas for transforming his country.” The real firehose was Saudi Arabia’s $27 million lobbying campaign to beatify MBS in Washington.
But MBS was so profligate in acts of ruthless impulsivity that he revealed himself as a dangerously destabilizing force in an all-too-volatile region. To seize power, he brutally deposed his cousin, then arbitrarily arrested scores of relatives, subjecting them to extortion, abuse and, in one case, death from torture.
He kidnapped the Lebanese prime minister, forcing his resignation in a pathetic hostage video after subjecting him to physical abuse; imprisoned human rights activists, including women who had campaigned for the right to drive, and when Canada protested their fate, he expelled its ambassador. He roiled the region by organizing an ill-considered blockade of Qatar.
Most terribly, he has conducted a ghastly military campaign against Iranian proxies in Yemen, a rolling war crime that escalated the slaughter and starvation of civilians into the world’s worst humanitarian disaster ― all while spending vast sums acquiring yachts and artistic masterpieces.
Despite all the damning evidence of his character, Donald Trump now says of MBS “maybe he did and maybe he didn’t,” announcing that the U.S. would impose no further sanctions on Saudi Arabia or the crown prince for Khashoggi’s murder. The capitulation is a low point of his presidency, exposing the limitlessness of Trump’s moral, psychological and geopolitical failings.
How did we get here? In any normal presidency, an autocrat so devoid of external or internal constraints would provoke extreme caution ― and require unrelenting scrutiny of his role in Khashoggi’s murder.
Remarkably America remained passive when MBS hijacked Lebanon’s prime minister, jailed human rights activists and rebuked Canada. Trump supported MBS’ blockade against Qatar and, reprehensibly, his despoliation of Yemen. The series of Saudi lies about Khashoggi is so transparent that they convey but one truth: that MBS regards Trump and Kushner with the same contempt he holds for human life.
Oct. 3: Khashoggi left the consulate alive.
Oct. 8: Reports of his death are baseless.
Oct. 15: As relayed by Trump himself, Khashoggi may have been murdered by “rogue killers.”
Oct. 19: The journalist died during a fistfight with 15 Saudis who, in their collective bemusement, tried “to conceal what happened.”
Oct. 20: The “murder” (such an ugly word) was a mistake unknown to senior Saudi officials.
Do they ever. Fortuitously for MBS, the top Saudi prosecutor has ordered up the death penalty for five of the murderers ― a diversionary show trial designed to silence all 15 participants by execution or intimidation. To further enlist America in his cover-up, MBS informed Kushner and national security adviser John Bolton that Khashoggi was a security threat and, according to The Wall Street Journal, told Kushner in a rage that he would “look elsewhere for foreign partners” if he were “betrayed by the West.” Effectively, MBS demanded from the United States the absolute immunity from consequence that Trump desires for himself.
Trump’s cosmetic sanctions against 17 Saudis implicated in the gruesome plot, a palliative meant to further insulate MBS from congressional outrage, accompanies a coldblooded calculation worthy of a Mafia don ― and morally repulsive in an American president. For years, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey has sought to extradite Fethullah Gulen, a political opponent who has long been a legal resident of the United States. According to NBC, Trump has considered facilitating Gulen’s extradition should Erdogan ease Turkey’s pressure on MBS over Khashoggi. In short, Trump would send one legal U.S. resident to almost certain death in Turkey to help MBS conceal his murder of another.
Trump’s entire response to the murder has consisted of lying and dissembling to protect MBS. Tuesday’s statement once again feigned ignorance of the CIA’s finding that MBS ordered the assassination ― even though Trump has seen the evidence. Worse, he absolved MBS and his regime of any further consequences. Through these cynical and deliberate acts of dereliction, America’s president has become an accessory after the fact to Khashoggi’s murder.
In moral terms, Trump is telling MBS that he can flout human rights, undertake dangerous regional adventurism, repress dissent and murder those who displease him with impunity. But even as realpolitik, Trump’s complicity is feckless.
As matters stand, Congress must take the lead. One obvious measure is to cut off support for the murderous Saudi campaign in Yemen ― a horror that bears America’s fingerprints ― and support a U.N. inquiry into war crimes by both sides. If America saves innocent lives by kneecapping Saudi brutality, Jamal Khashoggi will not have died for nothing.
Donald Trump has no problem empowering a murderous autocrat. Let’s hope the rest of us have yet to fall that far.
Richard North Patterson is The New York Times bestselling author of 22 novels, a former chairman of Common Cause and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.