War Stories

Pompeo Helps the Saudis Sweep a Murder Under the Rug

The message is clear: You can get away with anything if you flatter Trump’s ego.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo meets with Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo meets with Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on Tuesday. Leah Millis/AFP/Getty Images

America’s top diplomat has just told the world’s tyrants that they can do anything they want, even murder a prominent American resident, as long as they’re generous to President Trump.

The message was sent in the form of an official readout from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s meeting on Tuesday with Saudi King Salman:

The Secretary thanked the King for Saudi Arabia’s strong partnership with the United States. The Saudi and the King discussed a number of regional and bilateral issues. The Secretary also thanked the King for his commitment to supporting a thorough, transparent, and timely investigation of Jamal Khashoggi’s disappearance.

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Pompeo, you will recall, was dispatched to Riyadh to tell King Salman in no uncertain terms that he had to come clean on what happened to Khashoggi, a Saudi dissident and Washington Post columnist who hasn’t been seen since Oct. 2, when he entered the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. It is now all but certain that Khashoggi was tortured and killed.

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Yet now we see—from the State Department readout and from the photos of the meeting, which show the secretary and the king shaking hands and smiling broadly—that Pompeo’s mission to Riyadh was nothing more, or less, than a visit of reassurance that everything will soon return to normal as long as the key players devise a cover story that isn’t quite 100 percent inconceivable (and 99.4 percent is good enough).

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The story seems to have been written. It started with Trump’s remark that maybe Khashoggi was murdered by “rogue killers,” as if rogues could somehow infiltrate the Saudi Consulate. (Many on Twitter instantly wondered if these rogues were related to the 400-pound couch potato who, Trump once said, might have hacked into Hillary Clinton campaign’s emails.) Now the Saudis are putting out the word that Khashoggi was killed, but by accident, during an interrogation that went wrong. Even if one were disposed to believe this, it amounts to an admission that he was tortured—which, by itself, is nothing that a U.S. president should shrug off.

So why, in her readout, did Heather Nauert, the State Department spokeswoman, refer to Khashoggi’s “disappearance” and sign off on the incredible notion that the king will conduct a “thorough, transparent, and timely investigation”—much less thank him for the pledge?

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The readout is a disgrace from top to bottom. The U.S.-Saudi “partnership” has been in decline, and properly so, for years. It was founded on nothing more than our dependence on their oil; the dependence has long passed, a reassessment of the relationship is overdue, and the Khashoggi incident should be the occasion for that reset—not for another round of bonhomie and gratitude.

As for the “number of regional and bilateral issues” that the two discussed, some “transparency” would be welcome here. Presumably it involved new, less blatant ways of bombing Yemen and plotting regime change in Iran—the two main pillars of our “partnership” these days. It is time for Congress to step in and cut off sales of ammunition now.

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Lest people suspect Trump has personal motives for brushing this under the rug, he went out of his way Thursday morning to tweet, “For the record, I have no financial interests in Saudi Arabia (or Russia, for that matter).” Trump has always framed this denial in uncharacteristically careful language—he doesn’t have financial interests in Saudi Arabia or Russia. He has never disputed reports that the Saudis and Russians have investments in him.

At a 2015 campaign rally, Trump boasted of the Saudis, “They buy apartments from me. They spent $40 million, $50 million. Am I supposed to dislike them? I like them very much!” CNN recently reported that a Saudi lobbying firm paid Trump’s hotel in Washington more than $270,000 for stays in the five-month period between October 2016 and March 2017. The Washington Post reported that Trump’s hotels in New York and Chicago have had a rush of visitors from Saudi Arabia in recent months.

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Then there is the blatant button pushing. The Saudi royals feted Trump with plush carpets, sword dances, and a major arms deal during his first visit there—which was also the first foreign trip of his presidency. The deal listed $15 billion worth of U.S. arms, not $110 billion, as Trump has claimed, and only $4 billion worth of actual contracts have been signed. Even so, it’s worth noting that one purpose of U.S. arms sales over the decades has been to bind the customer to America’s geopolitical interests—not the other way around.

The Pompeo episode fits a pattern. Trump has shrugged off North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s heinous treatment of his own people, saying that he’s a “tough guy” who took over a “tough country,” and, besides, he’s written Trump “beautiful letters.” At a rally not long ago, Trump said of his relationship with the Pyongyang dictator, “We fell in love.”

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Trump has also discounted the murder of Russian ex-spies, at the hands of current Russian spies, on British soil, noting that the killings didn’t take place in the United States. So much for close allies, so much for international law, so much for values of any sort that transcend a buck and a round of genuflection, however disingenuous.

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And so much for the notion that a secretary of state should pursue interests broader or deeper than those of the president’s all-too-malleable ego. Many of Pompeo’s predecessors have treated the Saudis with more respect than was warranted, but, even at the height of our oil dependency, few would have bowed quite so deeply as he did in his meeting on Tuesday with the king. President George W. Bush let a planeload of Saudi citizens make a quick exit from the United States in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, when most other planes were grounded, but neither he nor Condoleezza Rice thanked them for their service on the way out.

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