President Trump said Saturday that he would speak with the CIA about its finding that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The Washington Post first reported Friday that the CIA had assessed with high confidence that the Saudi leader ordered the killing, based on multiple sources of intelligence.
“We haven’t been briefed yet. The CIA will be speaking to me today,” Trump told reporters on the South Lawn of the White House before leaving to survey damage from wildfires in California.
But the president has already been shown evidence of the prince’s alleged involvement in the killing, and privately he remains skeptical, Trump aides said. He has also looked for ways to avoid pinning the blame on Mohammed, the de facto Saudi ruler, the aides said.
The president’s most recent comments put him at odds with the findings of the CIA and senior intelligence officials.
Gina Haspel, the CIA director, and John Bolton, Trump’s national security advisor, have briefed the president on the intelligence community’s findings, with Haspel offering the various pieces of evidence that show lieutenants of the crown prince were directly involved, according to people familiar with the matter.
In conversations with his intelligence and national security advisors, the president has seized on the question of whether evidence shows that the prince “ordered” Khashoggi’s death, asserting that his advisors haven’t offered him definitive proof. He has also asked CIA and State Department officials where Khashoggi’s body is and has grown frustrated that the journalist’s remains haven’t been found.
Khashoggi, a Saudi national, was a contributing columnist to the Washington Post.
Referring to the crown prince, Trump told reporters Saturday, “As of this moment, we were told that he did not play a role; we’re going to have to find out what they say.”
The president didn’t specify who had said the prince had played no role.
The CIA did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
But within the White House, there has been little doubt that the prince was behind the killing.
“This is a situation where everyone basically knows what happened,” said one advisor who talks to Trump often. This person said Trump has repeatedly criticized how the prince has handled the situation and has said it is clear the Saudis are hiding facts.
The Saudis have offered multiple and contradictory explanations for what happened to Khashoggi since he stepped inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, on Oct. 2 to obtain documents for his upcoming marriage.
Once inside, Khashoggi was set upon by a team of Saudi agents who had flown to Istanbul to kill him, according to intelligence assessments by the U.S. and European governments. The team is believed to have dismembered Khashoggi’s body and disposed of his remains.
The CIA analyzed audio recordings from inside the consulate, which were provided by the Turkish government, as well as intercepted phone calls, according to people familiar with the matter. One of those calls was placed by a member of the hit team from inside the consulate to a senior aide to the prince, informing him that the killing had taken place, according to people familiar with the call.
The Saudi government has insisted that the prince knew nothing of the operation, which it has blamed on rogue actors who went beyond their authority in a mission meant to bring Khashoggi back to Saudi Arabia. Khashoggi had written critically of the prince’s policies and was living in a self-imposed exile in Virginia out of concern for his safety in his native country.
“The claims in this purported assessment are false,” Fatimah Baeshen, a spokeswoman for the Saudi Embassy in Washington, said of the CIA findings. “We have and continue to hear various theories without seeing the primary basis for these speculations.”
For more than a month, Trump has struggled to balance his interest in maintaining strong relations with the Saudi government with growing pressure in Congress and around the world to punish the Saudi government. Trump has told aides that he wants the prince to stay in power and that he sees the Saudis as the best strategic check on Iran and as a vital source of oil. The prince has a close relationship with Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and senior advisor who helps to lead the administration’s Middle East strategy.
Earlier this week, the Saudi public prosecutor acknowledged that a team of Saudi agents had killed Khashoggi, but he claimed that they had been sent with the intent to bring him back to Saudi Arabia. The prosecutor has brought charges against 11 people he characterized as part of a rogue operation, and he said he would seek the death penalty for five of those involved.
The Treasury Department also announced this week that it would freeze the assets of 17 Saudis and prohibit companies from doing business with them.
Trump has accused the Saudi government of trying to cover up its role. But he has looked for ways to avoid pinning the blame on the prince, aides and advisors said. He has continually thought about scenarios in which the prince would not have known what his underlings were doing, one advisor said.
“It is possible that this took place without his knowledge,” Trump said in an interview last month with the Washington Post. “And now they are trying to clean up a mess.”
That also contradicts the CIA’s findings. The agency determined that because the prince exercises absolute authority in the kingdom, it was inconceivable that an operation of such scale, involving 15 agents traveling internationally on government aircraft, could have been completed without his knowledge and authorization, according to people who are familiar with the agency’s conclusions.
Moreover, several members of the hit team can be tied directly to the prince. Some worked on his security detail, and others have traveled in the U.S. at the same time as the prince or other senior Saudi officials, passport records and other public information show.
Trump has made clear to European allies that he is uninterested in a joint response to the killing, even as pressure mounts to hold the Saudi government accountable, according to a diplomat briefed on the calls.
The advisor who talks to Trump said, “If the president had his way, he would stay entirely out of the Middle East and all of the problems. This is a problem that he wants to go away.”