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Trump Again Defends Saudi Government In Khashoggi's Disappearance


President Trump has dug in, supporting Saudi Arabia's crown prince in the same way that he dug in for a Supreme Court justice - literally the same. The president compared a judge accused of sexual assault with a Saudi leader accused of ordering a murder. Here we go again, said the president in an AP interview - guilty until proven innocent. His secretary of state just visited Saudi Arabia, as well as Turkey, where a Saudi writer disappeared. But Mike Pompeo explicitly said he did not ask about the facts of the case. He only said he wanted a transparent process. What are the Trump administration and the Saudis doing? Washington Post columnist David Ignatius knows people well in both capitals, Washington and Riyadh, and he's in our studios. David, welcome back.


INSKEEP: You would think that a U.S. administration would be acting in support or as an advocate for a U.S. resident who has disappeared - this writer who's disappeared, who's connected with your paper, I guess we should mention. But are the two countries actually working together here?

IGNATIUS: Well, that's the biggest fear after Trump's comments and Pompeo's visit - is that the U.S. is trying to help Saudi Arabia cook up a process that will, rather than putting out the facts, put out a cover story that supports the Saudi leadership. We should be demanding, as American citizens, that our government - our president and secretary of state hold the Saudis accountable. Jamal Khashoggi was my colleague at The Washington Post, but he lives in Virginia - lived. I was with his three children this week, who are American citizens. We have a stake in helping them - helping everyone understand the facts of how he disappeared, and if he's dead, how he was killed.

INSKEEP: I want people to know, for those who don't, that you have met the crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman. You've interviewed him more than once - at least once this year, as a matter of fact. When you hear of these accusations that the crown prince himself could have been involved in ordering the murder of this man, do you say, yeah, that sounds plausible to me?

IGNATIUS: He combines two things. He is a real change agent. He does want to change Saudi Arabia, a place that needs change, and he's accomplished some of those changes. He's reduced the role of the religious police. He's allowed women to drive and given women additional rights. He's provided a more open, public entertainment in the kingdom. Those are good things. Jamal Khashoggi, who was our columnist, a dissonant critic, credited MBS, as he's called, for all those things. He has a dark side to his personality. In the very first piece I wrote about him after meeting him for the first time, the headline was, the young prince who could jump-start Saudi Arabia or drive it off a cliff. And both elements are present in him. And in this latest instance with Khashoggi's disappearance, I fear we're seeing the impulsive hothead who could wreck the kingdom. It's important for Saudi Arabia, first of all, that the facts be clarified here. No one is going to invest in the kingdom in ways that are desperately needed to make it the more modern place that MBS wants until there is a clear accounting of what happened to Jamal Khashoggi. They're not going to get the investors. They're not going to get the support. So they have the biggest interest of anybody.

INSKEEP: Although the crown prince of Saudi Arabia is not going to indict himself. What is a plausible outcome here that could also establish the facts in a credible way?

IGNATIUS: So when you have incidents like this, there often is a call for an international investigation. That was done in the case of Rafik Hariri, the prime minister of Lebanon who was assassinated, it was believed, by Iranian-backed elements in Lebanon. So the U.N. sponsored an international inquiry to establish the facts. Because of the growing numbers of journalists under attack, I think this would be an appropriate case for an international investigation. I don't know exactly how it would be done, but that would be my preference. That may be impossible here. But I think the role of the U.S. is to insist that the investigation be transparent, be aggressive, be serious, not be a cover-up.

INSKEEP: Is the best hope, from the U.S. point of view, that the Saudis would punish some underlings for this?

IGNATIUS: The best hope is that all the facts of how this happened come out. And the worst outcome, I think, would be, you know, a convenient scapegoat that seems to resolve the issue. What we know, in my reporting this morning in The Washington Post and from The New York Times reporting this morning, is - in my piece, last summer, Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince, ordered his aides to bring back to the kingdom Jamal Khashoggi and other dissidents. He put out that order. Unfortunately, the U.S. didn't learn of it until after his disappearance October 2. New York Times reported this morning, very importantly, that four of the people who can be identified in photographs as having come into Turkey at the time of Jamal's disappearance appear to have been members of MBS' personal bodyguard team, including one, a man named Maher Mutreb, who can be identified in photographs standing right next to the crown prince at events in Houston, in Boston, in Madrid, in Paris. So there is hard evidence to say this is connected to the man at the top.

INSKEEP: OK. So what would make the Trump administration so eager to - I don't want to say cover up - we don't know that's where it's going - but so eager to sound supportive of Mohammed bin Salman in this circumstance? Why does President Trump and why would the United States need the Saudis so much?

IGNATIUS: Trump himself, his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, had made a big bet on the success of Mohammed bin Salman and his reform effort. And...

INSKEEP: And also in his strategy in the region - right? - confronting Iran.

IGNATIUS: So the Trump administration is heading into a full-tilt confrontation with Iran. I must say, this incident with Jamal Khashoggi and MBS is the greatest gift you could have given to Tehran. I mean, you know, the leadership in Tehran must just be going, wow, what a gift.

INSKEEP: It makes their Cold War rival look worse than they do for the moment.

IGNATIUS: But the idea that Saudi Arabia be stable, continue to modernize, continue to reform I think is in everybody's interests. The point I would make, Steve, is that's not going to happen until there's an investigation that people have confidence in, until people have confidence that the leadership of Saudi Arabia isn't involved in this. So if evidence emerges that MBS was directly involved, King Salman needs to think, is that a pathway for future stability for the kingdom, for somebody under this cloud to be crown prince? That's down the road. Right now, it's about gathering facts for real.

INSKEEP: David, thanks very much for coming by.

IGNATIUS: Thanks, Steve.

INSKEEP: David Ignatius of The Washington Post. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.