A report released yesterday by the CIA concluded that Jamal Khashoggi, a prominent Saudi journalist who was living in the United States, was assassinated on direct orders from Mohammed bin Salman (MbS), crown prince of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The Kingdom dispatched a 15-man “death squad” to Istanbul, comprised of members of MbS’s own security detail, to make the hit. On Oct. 2, the assassins concocted a reason to lure Khashoggi into the consulate. There, they spent seven full minutes torturing him, slicing off his fingers and other body parts while he was still alive. Then they killed him and hacked up the remains with a bone saw.
Turkey jails more journalists than almost any other country in the world. Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, is a full-blown dictatorship.
This is at odds with the Saudi cover story: that Khashoggi, a portly man of letters a few days away from his 60th birthday, initiated a fistfight with his interrogators and died of a sedative overdose given when he was restrained—at which point his body was sawed into pieces for undisclosed reasons. The Saudi prosecutor is seeking the death penalty for five members of the “death squad.” The CIA explanation also conflicts with the version provided by the Turkish government: that Khashoggi was strangled to death immediately upon entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul and was no longer alive when his body was dismembered. However, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey has been insistent that Khashoggi’s death was no accident.
Both Turkey and Saudi Arabia are nominally U.S. allies. We need the former for its strategic military bases and the latter for both its oil and its vast investment capital. Despite being a NATO member and ostensibly a democracy, Turkey jails more journalists than almost any other country in the world. Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, is a full-blown dictatorship, and despite a valiant attempt to portray MbS as a Western-style reformer, the crown prince has tightened, not loosened, his grip on absolute power in Saudi Arabia.
Putting aside the heinousness of the actual crime—to say nothing of MbS’s betrayal of the members of his own security detail, five of whom will likely be executed for their role in the operation—the Khashoggi affair has dramatic significance to the United States in general and to Donald Trump and Jared Kushner in particular.
This week, Trump floated the idea of handing over the Turkish dissident Fethullah Gülen, who now lives in Pennsylvania, to Erdogan’s government. Gülen’s extradition has long been on Erdogan’s wish list; recall that disgraced former national security adviser Mike Flynn was offered $15 million by the Turks to achieve this result. Gülen, a Muslim cleric, is the leader of a reform movement focused on education and religious tolerance; his beef with Erdogan involves the latter’s corruption. To hand a moderate reformer to an autocrat for certain execution flies in the face of everything the United States stands for. But Trump would certainly do just that—if enough could be gained for himself personally.
There is a term for the exchange of U.S. intelligence or, worse, policy for money: espionage.
With respect to the assassination, Trump and Kushner both have skin in the game. Saudi Arabia was the first state visit Trump made as president, a trip organized and pushed for by Kushner, who is chummy with MbS and has acted as the de facto ambassador to Saudi Arabia. Khashoggi was not banned from Saudi media for his criticisms of MbS, but rather for his criticisms of Donald Trump. More importantly, U.S. intelligence knew of a plan to lure Khashoggi back to arrest him, so the president and the de facto ambassador to Saudi Arabia must have also known. If they knew and did not share the information with Khashoggi, they are liable. Per the Washington Post:
Intelligence agencies have a ‘duty to warn’ people who might be kidnapped, seriously injured or killed, according to a directive signed in 2015. The obligation applies regardless of whether the person is a U.S. citizen. Khashoggi was a U.S. resident.
Why exactly are Trump and Kushner going to the mat for MbS? Is it to advance U.S. interests—or their own?
Last October, Jared Kushner paid an unannounced visit to Riyadh, where it’s reported that he stayed up until the wee hours talking “strategy” with the crown prince, apparently his new BFF. He allegedly gave MbS an “enemies list” culled from the classified president’s daily brief, which MbS seems to have used the following month to purge disloyal relatives from government and take their money. Also last October, Kushner’s company received a $57 million loan from Fortress Investment Group, which was recently purchased by SoftFund, a Saudi investment concern, to bail out its troubled property at One Journal Square in Jersey City. (A larger and more widely-reported loan, to bail out the troubled property at 666 Fifth Avenue, came the following summer, via Qatar.)
There is a term for the exchange of U.S. intelligence — or, worse, policy — for money. The term is espionage. It is punishable by death.
“For the record, I have no financial interests in Saudi Arabia,” Trump tweeted. “Any suggestion that I have is just more FAKE NEWS (of which there is plenty)!” This is skirting the truth at best, and at worst, it’s an outright lie, as the Washington Post reported.
Trump famously demands loyalty from his subordinates. But is he loyal to his country—or only himself? The American people need to know.