President Donald Trump acknowledged the existence of an audio recording of journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s murder inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul but said he has not listened to what he called the “suffering tape” and dismissed a growing clamor among lawmakers for Saudi Arabia to face more serious consequences for the killing.
Based in part on the tape and other intercepted communications, the CIA has concluded that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered last month’s killing of Khashoggi, a prominent critic of Saudi leaders and a contributing columnist to The Washington Post.
But Trump maintained in an interview on “Fox News Sunday” that the crown prince had told him “maybe five different times” and “as recently as a few days ago” that he had nothing to do with the killing. Aides have said Trump has been looking for ways to avoid pinning the blame on Mohammed, a close ally who plays a central role in Trump’s Middle East policy.
That goal has been complicated by shifting, contradictory stories from Riyadh, the Saudi capital, and the emergence of evidence pointing to Mohammed, including the recording, which was provided by Turkey and captures Khashoggi being killed by a Saudi hit team moments after entering the consulate on Oct. 2.
“We have the tape. I don’t want to hear the tape. No reason for me to hear the tape,” Trump said in the Fox interview, which was recorded Friday and aired Sunday. He described it as “a suffering tape” and told Fox host Chris Wallace, “I know everything that went on in the tape without having to hear it . . . . It was very violent, very vicious and terrible.”
Still, Trump demurred when Wallace asked about Mohammed’s role in the killing and whether the crown prince may have been lying to Trump about his lack of involvement.
“Well, will anybody really know?” Trump said. “You saw we put on very heavy sanctions, massive sanctions on a large group of people from Saudi Arabia. But, at the same time, we do have an ally, and I want to stick with an ally that in many ways has been very good.”
The Treasury Department announced last week that it was imposing sanctions on 17 Saudi individuals it said were involved in Khashoggi’s death.
The interview marks another instance of Trump openly casting doubt on the conclusions of American intelligence agencies. At a July summit in Helsinki with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Trump appeared to side with the Russian leader over U.S. intelligence officials on the matter of Moscow’s interference in U.S. elections. Trump further muddied his stance in later comments on the issue.
In the case of Khashoggi, the CIA concluded that Mohammed ordered the assassination after examining multiple sources of intelligence, including a phone call in which the prince’s brother, Khalid bin Salman, urged Khashoggi to visit the consulate in Istanbul to pick up documents he needed for his impending marriage to a Turkish woman. Khalid, the Saudi ambassador to the United States, assured Khashoggi that he would be safe, people familiar with the matter told The Post last week.
The Saudi government has acknowledged communications between Khashoggi and Khalid but said they never discussed “anything related to going to Turkey.”
Since the killing, the Saudis have offered multiple explanations for what happened at the consulate. Last week, the Saudi public prosecutor blamed the operation on a rogue band of operatives who were sent to Istanbul to return Khashoggi to Saudi Arabia. The prosecutor announced charges against 11 alleged participants and said he would seek the death penalty against five of them.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and other officials have said repeatedly that they were determined to get to the bottom of the matter and attribute responsibility even to the highest levels of the Saudi government, but the administration has been waiting to see whom the Saudis themselves would hold responsible.
Trump said Saturday that he had been briefed by CIA Director Gina Haspel about the agency’s assessment of the killing and that a “very full report” on “who caused it, and who did it” would be delivered Tuesday. It was unclear whether such a report exists and what it might say.
The sanctions the Treasury Department announced last week against the 17 Saudis were imposed under the Global Magnitsky Act, which empowers the United States to target human rights abusers abroad. The sanctions freeze assets under U.S. jurisdiction and prohibit Americans from dealing with the 17.
Key U.S. lawmakers have said the sanctions do not go far enough. On Sunday, several Republican senators demanded accountability at the highest levels of the Saudi leadership.
In an appearance on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., took perhaps the hardest line, calling the crown prince “irrational” and “unhinged.” Graham said it was “impossible for me to believe” that Mohammed knew nothing about the plot to kill Khashoggi.
“If he is going to be the face and the voice of Saudi Arabia going forward, I think the kingdom will have a hard time on the world stage,” Graham said, adding: “From the legislative branch side, we’re going to do as much as we can, as hard as we can, to send a signal to the world.”
Sens. Rand Paul, R-Ky., and Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., echoed that view. In an appearance on CNN’s “State of the Union,” Flake, a frequent Trump critic who is retiring in January, said “it looks more and more like the truth is that the crown prince was involved, that he likely ordered it.”
Paul noted on CBS’ “Face the Nation” that U.S. intelligence indicates Khalid called Khashoggi at his brother’s direction. “I think the evidence is overwhelming that the crown prince was involved,” Paul said, adding: “We need to punish who ordered this – who’s in charge.”
Democrats also ramped up their calls for Trump to take a stronger stance. Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., who will be chairman of the House Intelligence Committee in the next Congress, said on ABCs “This Week” that the president “needs to listen to what our intelligence community has to say.”
“The danger to the U.S. is if we act too precipitously and the House of Saud should fall, that would be completely destabilizing of the region, and we don’t know what would follow,” Schiff said. But he added that it is “vitally important” that the Trump administration “not allow itself to become part of any Saudi coverup.”
At the Halifax International Security Forum in Nova Scotia, where he was speaking as part of a bipartisan U.S. Senate delegation on Saturday, Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., called Saudi statements about the case a “repeated set of lies.”
Khashoggi was a Virginia resident, and Kaine said that he has met with some of the journalist’s children. “There has to be accountability for this,” he said, “and I think it will involve some fundamental reevaluation of U.S.-Saudi relations.”
With frustration mounting, a bipartisan group of senators introduced legislation Thursday that would impose tougher sanctions on Saudi Arabia, including a blanket embargo on the sale of arms to Riyadh for offensive purposes and a ban on U.S. refueling of Saudi planes engaged in Yemen’s brutal civil war.
Kaine said some form of legislation was “likely to be taken up after Thanksgiving on the floor of the Senate,” but a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., declined to comment.
In a separate appearance at the Halifax forum, Gen. Joseph Dunford Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was asked what effect a freeze on arms sales to Saudi Arabia would have on U.S. military operations and objectives in the Middle East.
“Saudi Arabia has been an important partner for regional security in the past, and I expect it will be in the future,” he said. “Their cooperation, their interoperability, in my judgment, is a good thing.”
At the same time, Dunford noted that the United States has a number of allies in the Perisan Gulf and the wider Middle East. “Working forward,” he said, “we will listen carefully to whatever the policy is in light of recent events.”