One Year After Saudi Journalist’s Murder, Trump Conversation with Saudi Crown Prince is Buried
By: John Mason/Arab America Contributing Writer
One or more conversations Mohammed bin Salman, Crown Prince and virtual ruler of Saudi Arabia, and President Trump had about the brutal murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi have been buried deep in the intelligence system of the U.S. How much they might reveal about both MBS and Donald Trump is yet to be known. Given Trump’s financial entanglement with the Saudis, it is hard to know who is protecting who in what we know from these conversations.
Trump initially protects Mohammed bin Salman from implication in the Khashoggi Murder
Soon after the vicious murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents in Turkey, conversations between Trump and MBS show the Trump administration’s willingness to protect the Saudi Crown Prince. In those conversations, MBS praises the U.S. President for covering him in that murder. Both Trump and son-in-law and senior advisor, Jared Kushner, have gone out of their way to minimize MBS’ involvement in this heinous crime. They exercised this privilege, according to Business Insider, “…despite reports asserting that the CIA is all but certain that Crown Prince Mohammed ordered the killing personally.”
As pressure mounted to name MBS in the planning and execution of Khashoggi, the U.S. Senate went against the President by passing a resolution condemning MBS. Khashoggi was not only a journalist for the Washington Post, but he was also a resident of the U.S., having taken refuge here to escape Saudi oppression. As the heat increased around him, the Crown Prince began changing his version of the event, finally blaming the death on so-called “rogue murderers,” then placing 18 secret agents on trial for the murder. MBS charged the U.S. Senate with “blatant interference” in Saudi’s internal affairs.
As pressure mounted against the U.S. administration on MBS complicity, Trump’s position on the Prince’s involvement in Khashoggi’s death began to weaken. Again according to Business Insider, the President noted, “I hope that the king and the crown prince didn’t know about” the killing. Sensing bad domestic political winds, Trump subsequently shifted his story, even more, noting about MBS, “…maybe he did and maybe he didn’t…” know about the murder.
Transcript of Trump-MBS Conversation found to be buried in ‘Code-word-level System’
Realizing the domestic political sensitivity of the transcripts of Trump-MBS conversations about the Khashoggi murder, White House officials blocked access to them by moving them into a highly restricted electronic storage site. These officials, knowing the controversial nature of the conversations, according to a recent CNN report, “…took remarkable steps to keep from becoming public.” This action was seen as “highly unusual,” since normally a transcript of such a conversation would have been made more readily available.
It turns out that the highly secured electronic system in which the MBS-Trump conversations were placed in the same system, according to the CNN report, “…that held a now-infamous phone call with Ukraine’s president and which helped spark a whistleblower complaint made public this week…” It was the whistleblower complaint that revealed the existence of the separate highly classified system, normally used for extremely sensitive, covert operations. This effort to conceal records of Trump’s conversations with foreign leaders points to the extreme to which his aides have gone to protect their boss. Previously embarrassing leaks of the President’s conversations with foreign leaders convinced these aides to embargo especially sensitive matters from greater scrutiny.
It is unusual to transfer the head of state calls into the code-word system when the content was not highly classified, according to CNN. However, if it is the President who is acting as the classifier, both classifying and declassifying material because he doesn’t want it to leak out, then that is “…an abuse of power and abuse of the system.”
As Trump distances himself from MBS, the Crown Prince seems to take on more personal blame for Khashoggi’s Murder
Almost as if it was a cover for Trump, MBS has now admitted that the Khashoggi murder “happened under my watch.” While not taking full blame for this grizzly murder, MBS’ admission at least attempts to correct his earlier statements about having no knowledge at all about Khashoggi’s demise. A new documentary to be presented early this week (October 1) on PBS will present the story of this recent admission—just ahead of the one-year anniversary of the murder.
The PBS documentary questions MBS about his ignorance of such a momentous decision to quell one of the key critics (Khashoggi) of the Saudi government. MBS avers that he can’t claim to have control of his 3-million strong government staff, much less the ministers who run the government. Even the use of an official Saudi jet plane by the 15 alleged Saudi murderers was outside his purview, MBS stated. His critics, such as Mahjoob Zweiri of Qatar University, cited in the PBS documentary, noted, “It would be very difficult for Mohammed bin Salman to wash his hands and say ‘I have nothing to do with this.’”
How many of the details surrounding the assassination of Khashoggi may be included in the Trump-MBS conversation, as captured in the “code-word level system” where they were dumped by White House aides, is unknown at the moment. More of them will probably be revealed as the impeachment inquiry develops. Whether the conversation further implicates MBS or shows how far the President would go in protecting the Crown Prince because of his, Trump’s, financial entanglements with the Kingdom, is yet to be seen.
Conversations between President Trump and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Sultan about the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, Business Insider, Bill Bostock, 12/17/18; CNN report on the “code-word-level system,” Pamela Brown, Jim Scuitto, and Kevin Liptak, 9/27/19; PBS Documentary on Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and the story of the Khashoggi Murder (to be aired 10/1/19).
John Mason, an anthropologist specializing in Arab culture and its diverse populations, is the author of recently-published LEFT-HANDED IN AN ISLAMIC WORLD: An Anthropologist’s Journey into the Middle East, 2017, New Academia Publishing.