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‘A personality type that feels absolutely no guardrails’: How Saudi Arabia’s leader charmed Washington while cracking down on opponents

Joseph Westphal was wowed from the start. As President Barack Obama’s ambassador to Saudi Arabia in 2015, Westphal started paying regular visits to the rising new power in the royal court: the country’s new defense minister, Mohammed bin Salman, favored son of King Salman.

“First of all, we shared a really nice sense of humor,” said Westphal. “I mean we, we laughed, we joked around. … It was just laughing about life, and talking about things that maybe happened to me or happened to him.”

More important, Prince Mohammed, who is known as MBS, was pledging to start to rein in the country’s religious police and grant greater rights to Saudi women — steps that U.S. officials had long been calling for. “Yes, absolutely,” Westphal replied when asked if he viewed MBS at the time as an agent of change. “From the very beginning. Absolutely.”

Saudi Arabia's newly appointed King Salman, left, shakes hands with the U.S ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Joseph Westphal, at a meeting with then-President Barack Obama, right, in Riyadh in 2015.
Saudi Arabia’s King Salman, left, shakes hands with the U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Joseph Westphal, at a meeting with President Barack Obama, right, in Riyadh in 2015. (Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images)

Westphal’s relationship with the young Saudi prince is one glimpse into a much broader and, from today’s perspective, unsettling phenomenon: the strange and successful courtship by MBS of America’s foreign policy and corporate elite, presenting himself as a cultured reformer who was positioned to revolutionize his rigidly conservative country.

The story of that courtship — and its embarrassing aftermath, as MBS’s ruthless crackdowns on dissent and his bloody military adventure in Yemen became ever more apparent — is the subject of “The Rise of the Bullet Guy,” Episode 5 in Yahoo News’ “Conspiracyland” podcast: “The Secret Lives and Brutal Death of Jamal Khashoggi.”

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It is a courtship that came to a final, crashing and ignominious end when, in October 2018, a so-called Tiger Team of Saudi assassins brutally murdered the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi — drugging him with illicit narcotics brought from Cairo, suffocating him and then carving up his body with a bone saw and depositing his body parts in plastic bags.

It was a crime that the CIA soon concluded had been authorized by the crown prince himself, noting — among other factors — that MBS’s right-hand man had met with the team before they left to kill Khashoggi in Istanbul, and that seven members of the hit squad were part of MBS’s personal security detail, answerable only to him.

And yet the shocking nature of Khashoggi’s murder has tended to obscure the preceding years, when at first top Obama administration officials, and then President Donald Trump and his influential son-in-law, Jared Kushner, embraced MBS with few reservations and extolled his supposed virtues.

“He’s the only person I’ve met in 30 years of my involvement or more with Saudi Arabia who has put that kind of a vision on the table for the transformation of the country,” said John Kerry, Obama’s secretary of state, in an interview for “Conspiracyland” about his assessment of MBS at the time.

Kerry’s Georgetown home was the setting for perhaps the most iconic moment in MBS’s courtship of the U.S. government. It was in June 2016, and the new Saudi defense minister, during a trip to the United States, was invited to a Ramadan dinner at Kerry’s house. As he entered, MBS spotted the grand piano in the living room, promptly sat down and started to play Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata.”

John Kerry, then U.S. secretary of state, left, greets Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman outside Kerry's Washington, D.C., residence, before a meeting with him in June 2016.
Secretary of State John Kerry greets Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman outside Kerry’s Washington, D.C., home in 2016. (Molly Riley/AFP via Getty Images)

“I mean, we were all surprised,” recalled Kerry. “Somebody had trained him well.”

But even as he impressed the guests in Kerry’s living room, others saw the dark impulses of a would-be tyrant. Ben Rhodes, then Obama’s deputy national security adviser, recalls a summit in Riyadh the previous April, when Obama raised U.S. concerns about Saudi Arabia’s worsening human rights record, including a mass execution of 47 prisoners and the case of a Saudi blogger who had just been sentenced to 10 years in prison — and 1,000 lashes with a whip.

“Obama’s like, ‘What are you guys doing? I’m not gonna defend this,’” said Rhodes in an interview for “Conspiracyland.”

But suddenly, “MBS stands up in the middle of the room, and, and begins to lecture Obama: ‘You don’t understand the Saudi justice system. And if we didn’t do this, our people would demand vengeance.’ And then he offers to get Obama a briefing on the Saudi justice system. I mean, dripping condescension. You know? And I just remember sitting there and thinking, like, ‘What is going on here?’”

“It spoke to a personality type that feels absolutely no guardrails, you know?” Rhodes added. “I mean, if you’re comfortable standing up in a room full of people and lecturing the president of the United States … because he’s raising concerns about mass executions in your country, you are not the guy people [are] reading about … in the New York Times and the Washington Post, who’s [described as] a reformer. I mean, it just laid bare the utter bullshit of the narrative around MBS to me. And I’m, I’m sitting there thinking, you know, ‘How are people calling this guy a modernizer?’”

President Barack Obama, left, in April 2016 with Saudi Defense Minister and Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, at a U.S.-Gulf Cooperation Council summit in Riyadh..
Obama with Mohammed bin Salman in April 2016 at a U.S.-Gulf Cooperation Council summit in Riyadh. (Bandar Algaloud/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

But there was an issue of far more concern to U.S. officials than the young prince’s condescending lecture to Obama. With virtually no warning to Washington, MBS had launched a merciless war in Yemen, targeting the Houthis — a religious minority group loosely aligned with the Iranians who had seized control of the country’s capital. Saudi warplanes, using American weapons, had unleashed a relentless wave of bombings that were slaughtering civilians by the thousands, sparking outrage from human rights groups.

There was “countless documentation of U.S.-manufactured bombs being used on markets, on schools, on people’s homes, on hospitals, on clinics throughout the country,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, then the director of Human Rights Watch’s Mideast Division and now the executive director of Democracy for the Arab World Now.

Officials in the Obama administration were well aware of the compromising position this put them in. The State Department’s legal office even launched an inquiry into whether the United States was complicit in war crimes. (The lawyers never reached a firm conclusion.) But the White House was torn about what to do.

At the White House, officials were “repelled by what we were seeing,” said Rob Malley, who was then on the National Security Council and charged with coordinating U.S. policy in the region. “But the first instinct was, ‘Well, let’s see if we could give them advice on how to make sure that they don’t kill civilians again.’ But it turns out time and again, whether it’s a mosque, whether it’s a market, whether it’s whatever it is, that they would not only hit it once, they hit it twice, sometimes more.”

Girls demonstrate against the Saudi-led coalition outside the offices of the United Nations in Yemen's capital, Sanaa, in August 2015.
Girls demonstrate in 2015 against the Saudi-led coalition outside U.N. offices in Sanaa, Yemen. (Khaled Abdullah/Reuters)

Still, said Malley, Obama was reluctant to provoke a confrontation with the Saudis. At the time, relations were tense over the Iranian nuclear deal, which Riyadh opposed, and he wanted the Saudis’ help in the war against the Islamic State group.

“There was a meeting [about the war in Yemen] of the Principals Committee, chaired by President Obama,” said Malley. “There were voices expressing a lot of concern.” But Obama “felt he could not, given everything else that was happening in the region, afford a crisis with one of the few countries with which we still retained … strong relations and cooperation on a whole host of issues, counterterrorism first and foremost.

“I was extremely — how could I put it? — troubled by the whole decision, because we should not have been complicit in this war,” added Malley, who has rejoined the National Security Council under President Biden. “And, you know, the U.S. makes enormous — mistakes is probably too, too kind a word, to describe many, many of its actions.”

There was no doubt in the minds of Malley and other U.S. officials that it was MBS who was driving the train. “He seemed to be already oblivious to the consequences of the actions that he took,” said Malley. “And this was his war … because he was the one who appeared to order it.”

It was a harbinger of even more disturbing moves to come.

Next on “Conspiracyland”: Influence Operations

MBS deposes his chief rival, Mohammed bin Nayef, as crown prince, while the Saudis launch covert influence operations on U.S. soil, including a campaign to curry favor with President Donald Trump with mass bookings at the new Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C., and a plot to plant spies inside Twitter to steal personal data from critics of the Saudi regime.

In case you missed it:

Episode 1: “Exclusive: Saudi assassins picked up illicit drugs in Cairo to kill Khashoggi”

Episode 2: “Arms, harems and a Trump-owned yacht: How a Khashoggi family member helped mold the U.S.-Saudi relationship”

Episode 3: “‘I just fell apart crying heartbreak to you’: A murdered journalist’s years-long relationship with Osama bin Laden”

Episode 4: “From royal insider to target: How the Arab Spring propelled Jamal Khashoggi into the Saudi leadership’s crosshairs”

Cover thumbnail photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Sasha Mordovets/Getty Images, Khaled Abdullah/Reuters

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Prior to his murder, Jamal Khashoggi offered to help 9/11 victims suing Saudi Arabia

The meeting was rushed and, for Jamal Khashoggi, as risky as they come. The famed Saudi journalist, living in exile in the suburbs of northern Virginia, was furious with his government. He had just learned that it had imposed a travel ban on his adult son, blocking him from leaving Saudi Arabia — a clear punishment for Khashoggi’s increasingly forceful criticisms of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

And so, on the morning of Oct. 26, 2017, an agitated Khashoggi did something that for him would have been unthinkable only a few years earlier. He called a former FBI agent working for the families of 9/11 victims who were suing his government and asked to get together right away to discuss how he could help them.

Catherine Hunt (Catherine Hunt)
Catherine Hunt. (Catherine Hunt)

Khashoggi’s rendezvous that morning with ex-agent Catherine Hunt at a northern Virginia coffee shop has long been a subject of mystery and intrigue. Why would Khashoggi — once a Saudi spin doctor who vigorously defended his country over the events of 9/11 — want to talk to a representative of the lawyers seeking to hold his government accountable for the terrorist attack? And even more significant, did senior Saudi officials know what he was up to that morning? And if they did know, did that play a role in his brutal slaughter inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul less than a year later?

In a special bonus episode of the Yahoo News podcast “Conspiracyland,” Hunt — a veteran agent who worked counterterrorism and counterintelligence cases from Los Angeles to Baghdad — provides an exclusive account of her strange encounter with the Saudi journalist. It comes at a time when the lawyers for the victims’ families are entering a new and crucial phase of their case, having recently deposed three of their most important witnesses: a former Saudi Embassy official, a reputed Saudi intelligence operative and a radical imam at a Saudi-government-funded mosque, all of whom were suspected for years by the FBI of having provided assistance to two of the al-Qaida hijackers in the run-up to 9/11.

How strong a case the families have against the Saudi government remains far from clear, given that those and other depositions remain covered by a court-imposed gag order as well as a “state secrets” privilege imposed by former Attorney General William Barr that has blocked key details about the FBI investigation into the Saudi role in 9/11 from becoming public. (The lawyers for the families — with backing from members of Congress — are asking current Attorney General Merrick Garland to lift the privilege.)

US Attorney General William Barr speaks during a news conference to provide an update on the investigation of the terrorist bombing of  Pan Am flight 103 on the 32nd anniversary of the attack, at the US Department of Justice in Washington, DC, on December 21, 2020. (Michael Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images)
Then-Attorney General William Barr in December 2020. (Michael Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images)

But either way, Khashoggi’s meeting with Hunt stands out. It represents a tantalizing moment when the 9/11 families and their legal team, at least for a brief moment, seemed on the verge of getting the cooperation of a well-connected Saudi insider with intimate knowledge of his country’s interactions with al-Qaida.

In fact, it was Khashoggi’s unique background — as a onetime friend of Osama bin Laden who was later hired as the media adviser to a powerful Saudi prince and former chief of Saudi intelligence — that had prompted Hunt to reach out to him in the first place, about two weeks prior to their meeting.

“If you look back on the history of his career, he had a tremendous amount of connections and access to information,” Hunt said. “So he really was in a position to potentially be very helpful to us.”

When she first talked to Khashoggi, he was — according to Hunt — “very interested” in getting together, and they began discussing setting up a meeting. And then, early on the morning of Oct. 26, Khashoggi called her and wanted to move the meeting up, telling her he had urgent business to attend to and wanted to see her right away. She rushed over to the coffee shop in the Tysons Corner shopping mall that Khashoggi suggested. When she got there, she says, he was “very upset” that his son had been barred from leaving Saudi Arabia by authorities there. It had happened, as Khashoggi explained it, only because he was “being targeted by the regime.”

At that point, Hunt said, “he started to instruct me a lot about the Ministry of Islamic Affairs, and that they were charged with the responsibility of spreading Islam throughout the world. He explained that really, it was a fundamentalist version of Islam that was being propagated, and that the current government was trying to reform that position.

A general manager of Alarab TV, Jamal Khashoggi, looks on during a press conference in the Bahraini capital Manama, on December 15, 2014. (Mohammed Al-Shaikh/AFP via Getty Images)
Jamal Khashoggi in 2014. (Mohammed Al-Shaikh/AFP via Getty Images)

“He said it more in a question: ‘Is my country responsible for tolerating and even supporting radicalism? Yes. And they must take responsibility for that.’”

Even that relatively small concession, Hunt thought, was “golden.” Here was a prominent Saudi apparently prepared to say his country should be held accountable for the spread of radical Islam — and the ensuing acts of terrorism it caused. But then Khashoggi said something even more surprising. He asked if the New York-based law firm Hunt was working for, Kreindler & Kreindler, was prepared to offer him a job as a consultant to the 9/11 families’ legal team. If so, he emphasized, they would have to be secretive about it. No more get-togethers in the Washington, D.C., area, where the Saudi presence was extensive.

“He was very interested in talking about it,” Hunt said. “He wanted to have the next meeting in New York, not the D.C. area.

“I was excited,” she added. “I was thrilled that he was so positive about it. I think he could have added a tremendous amount.” As to Khashoggi’s motivation in making such an offer, Hunt said: “Here he was, he found himself in exile. And I think working with the law firm would have given him a chip in the game, if you will.”

But Hunt never heard from Khashoggi again — and the full significance of their meeting didn’t hit home until more than a year later, in the weeks after his murder inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2, 2018. The Washington Post had reported that the then Saudi ambassador to the United States, Khalid bin Salman (or KBS, the brother of Mohammed bin Salman), might have played a role in luring Khashoggi to Istanbul. The ambassador responded in a tweet that he’d had no contact with Khashoggi since they communicated via text on Oct. 26, 2017 — the same day as the meeting with Hunt.

Saudi Arabia's Vice Minister of Defense Prince Khalid bin Salman waits for a meeting with US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and others at the Pentagon August 29, 2019, in Washington, DC. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images)
Saudi Prince Khalid bin Salman in 2019. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images)

What Khashoggi and KBS (now the country’s deputy defense minister, who met with Biden administration officials this week during a trip to Washington) texted or communicated about that day remains unknown. But Jim Kreindler, the lead lawyer for the 9/11 families, said he is convinced Khashoggi sought to use the meeting with Hunt as leverage with the Saudi ambassador to help his son.

“There isn’t a doubt in my mind that after speaking to Catherine, he called KBS and said, ‘Hey, the plaintiffs’ lawyers had an FBI agent talking to me. I didn’t give them anything yet, but, you know, you mess with my son and I’m going to spill the beans.’”

To be sure, Kreindler has no hard evidence to support his speculation. But the curious timing of Khashoggi’s meeting with Hunt — on the same day he was communicating with the Saudi ambassador to the United States — adds one more mystery to the many surrounding the last year of the journalist’s life before the Saudi team of assassins injected him with a lethal dose of drugs, suffocated him and then carved up his body inside the consulate in Istanbul.

In case you missed it:

Episode 1: “Exclusive: Saudi assassins picked up illicit drugs in Cairo to kill Khashoggi”

Episode 2: “Arms, harems and a Trump-owned yacht: How a Khashoggi family member helped mold the U.S.-Saudi relationship”

Episode 3: “‘I just fell apart crying heartbreak to you’: A murdered journalist’s years-long relationship with Osama bin Laden”

Episode 4: “From royal insider to target: How the Arab Spring propelled Jamal Khashoggi into the Saudi leadership’s crosshairs”

Episode 5: “‘A personality type that feels absolutely no guardrails’: How Saudi Arabia’s leader charmed Washington while cracking down on opponents”

Episode 6: A direct trail of blood drops’ leads from a Twitter hack to Jamal Khashoggi’s murder

Episode 7: “’He gave nobody a full view of his life’: In his final days, Jamal Khashoggi juggled a secret wife in the U.S. and a fiancée in Turkey”

Episode 8: “‘Was there a bone saw?’ How Trump helped the Saudis whitewash the murder of Jamal Khashoggi”

Bonus Episode 1: “Training the assassins

Cover thumbnail photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Eric Feferberg/AFP via Getty Images, Middle East Monitor/Handout via Reuters, Robert Giroux/Getty Images

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‘Was there a bone saw?’ How Trump helped the Saudis whitewash the murder of Jamal Khashoggi

In early October 2018, just a few days after Jamal Khashoggi had disappeared inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, White House officials first saw the TV footage that stopped them in their tracks.

A supposed Khashoggi look-alike — a heavy-set man wearing the journalist’s clothes and glasses — could be seen walking out of the consulate as though he didn’t have a care in the world. Kirsten Fontenrose, then the director of Gulf affairs at the National Security Council, suspected right away what this was: a scene clumsily crafted to cover up a murder.

“When that footage kept playing, all of us were looking at each other saying, ‘OK, does this mean they premeditated this? Is this what we’re looking at here?’” says Fontenrose, who knew Khashoggi and would regularly have coffee with him every few weeks near the White House. “Because this is a disaster. This is crazy. Can this really be happening?”

Donald Trump with Prince Mohammed bin Salman
President Donald Trump shows a chart highlighting arms sales to Saudi Arabia during a White House meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in March 2018. (Evan Vucci/AP)

The story of how the Trump White House responded to Khashoggi’s gruesome murder — and ultimately helped cover up the crime — is the subject of “Anatomy of a Cover-up,” the eighth and final episode in the Yahoo News “Conspiracyland” podcast series, “The Secret Lives and Brutal Death of Jamal Khashoggi.”

It is a story in which American values and rhetorical support for human rights around the world collided head first with perceived U.S. strategic and economic interests in the region. And it is a tension that carried over into the Biden administration when the new president, having pledged during his campaign to turn the Saudi kingdom into a world “pariah,” chose not to impose any penalties on the person who the CIA had concluded was responsible for Khashoggi’s murder: Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, or MBS.

It is also a story — related in a special episode of “Conspiracyland,” “Training the Assassins” — in which Trump officials maneuvered to remove American fingerprints from the crime. President Donald Trump had nominated Louis Bremer, a managing director of the New York-based investment firm Cerberus Capital Management, to be assistant secretary of defense for special operations. But Bremer — whose boss, Steve Feinberg, served as chair of Trump’s intelligence advisory board — had potential baggage: He served on a five-person board of Tier 1 Group, an Arkansas-based company owned by Cerberus that had a State Department license to train Saudi intelligence operatives. The training took place at a compound outside Memphis, where former members of U.S. Special Forces conducted paramilitary courses in staging commando raids, evasive driving and rapid-fire shooting, according to Tier 1’s website and YouTube videos it has posted.

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When Bremer appeared before the Senate Armed Services Committee for his confirmation hearing on Aug. 6, 2020, Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., grilled him intensely. Was he aware of reports that Tier 1 may have specifically trained members of the Saudi Tiger Team that killed Khashoggi? Had the company conducted any investigation into whether that had happened? Bremer demurred, acknowledging that “I do know that we train Saudi nationals as part of our engagement with the kingdom,” but saying he had “no recollection” of being told that some of them had participated in the Khashoggi murder. He promised, however, to check and provide written answers to the committee.

When Bremer did so, and submitted those responses for review to the White House, officials were stunned and realized they had a serious PR problem on their hands. Bremer confirmed his company had indeed conducted such training, “and there were invoices for members of the Saudi hit team,” said one former senior Trump official who was flabbergasted after reading the written responses.

Rather than disclose the American connection to Khashoggi’s murder, the White House never forwarded Bremer’s responses to the Senate and his nomination to the top Pentagon post was allowed to die. (Bremer and Cerberus declined to respond to repeated requests for comment from Yahoo News, but the former nominee recently confirmed his responses to the New York Times, telling the paper that Tier 1 Group conducted training of members of the Saudi Tiger Team that was “protective in nature.” “The training provided was unrelated to their subsequent heinous acts,” Bremer told the paper.)

Louis Bremer
Louis Bremer at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing in August 2020 to consider his nomination as an assistant secretary of defense. (Rod Lamkey/CNP/Shutterstock)

Khashoggi’s murder sparked a crisis inside the Trump White House. Trump and his top aides, including son-in-law Jared Kushner, had made the Saudis the centerpiece of their Middle East strategy. The president had extolled the Saudis as a bulwark against Iranian aggression. He had taken his first foreign trip to Saudi Arabia and cultivated MBS, welcoming him to the White House and gushing in front of the TV cameras about the billions of dollars in weapons the Saudis were buying from U.S. defense contractors.

But the murder of Khashoggi, a U.S.-based journalist writing for one of this country’s leading newspapers, threatened to upend all that. And top officials scrambled to contain the fallout.

“Get the full story out, whatever the full story is,” former national security adviser John Bolton says he and Kushner told the crown prince in a phone call shortly after Khashoggi’s disappearance. But Bolton acknowledged he never asked MBS directly the most obvious and important question of all: Did he order the murder? “No, I didn’t, because I hadn’t spoken to the president at that point,” Bolton said in an interview for “Conspiracyland.” “It was not something that I wanted to raise before I knew what direction Trump was going to go in.”

Soon enough, Trump himself was on the phone to both MBS and his father, King Salman, pressing for answers as well, according to Fontenrose, who monitored the calls.

“The president had multiple calls with MBS and with King Salman, specifically asking them, ‘Did you know anything about this?’” she says. “The president would flat out ask, I mean, up to a dozen times on any individual phone call, whether it was with King Salman or with MBS or both of them, ‘Did you have any knowledge of this operation?’ ‘Did you know this was going to happen?’ ‘Did you give this order?’”

Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi enters the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2, 2018.  (CCTV/Hurriyet via AP)
Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi enters the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2, 2018. (CCTV/Hurriyet via AP)

And every time it was, ‘No, no, no, we didn’t know anything, and we’re still looking and we’re still searching.’ ‘Yes, Donald, we totally understand this makes things difficult for you, and we’re trying to get to the bottom of it.’’’

One piece of intelligence in particular had gotten Trump’s attention. U.S. officials had concluded that the Saudis had used a bone saw to carve up Khashoggi’s body.

“I mean, he would go back to it and back to it and back to it, trying to press them and telling them, you know, ‘This will change everything, you guys. We’ve got to know. We’re with you. We’re standing behind Saudi Arabia … but we’ve got to get to the bottom of this. Was there a bone saw? Was there a bone saw?

“‘I’ve been in difficult negotiations. I’ve never had to take a bone saw.’”

At one point Trump turned to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, according to Fontenrose, and asked: “‘Have you ever had to take a bone saw into negotiations?’ ‘No, Mr. President, ha-ha.’ And pressing, pressing, pressing, and every time, ‘No, no, no, Donald, we didn’t know anything about it. We’re still trying to get to the bottom of this.’”

While these talks were going on, the Saudis were issuing an ever-shifting series of denials. At first, three days after the murder, MBS had insisted in a Bloomberg interview that Khashoggi had left the consulate and the Saudis had no idea what happened to him. Then, as Turkish officials started to leak details of secret audiotapes they had made from inside the consulate, the Saudis declared that Khashoggi had died in a “fistfight.”

Mike Pompeo, center
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, in December 2018, leaves a briefing on the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia in regard to Khashoggi’s murder. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call via Getty Images)

Finally they settled on a different narrative: Khashoggi had been murdered by “rogue killers” who acted on their own. It was a formulation Trump immediately adopted — and proclaimed to the world.

“I just spoke with the king of Saudi Arabia, who denies any knowledge of what took place with regard to, as he said, his Saudi Arabian citizen,” Trump said on Oct. 15. “It sounded to me like maybe these could have been rogue killers. Who knows?”

The message was clear. Trump was determined to protect the Saudis — even if, as Bolton suggests, he knew the Saudi leaders’ denials were lies.

“I think this was a case where Trump very decisively and flatly decided he was going to continue to support the Saudis on a very realpolitik basis. That’s unpleasant, to be sure, but we live in an unpleasant world,” Bolton said. “Look, I think Trump knew and acted on the assumption that the highest levels of the royal family were involved in it, and he made his decision in any event. And at that point, the issue was closed for the rest of us, for Mike Pompeo, for myself. The president had made up his mind.”

Trump also made that reasoning perfectly clear when speaking to reporters on Nov. 20.

“If we abandon Saudi Arabia, it will be a terrible mistake,” Trump said. “They’re buying hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of things from this country. If I say, ‘We don’t want to take your business,’ if I say, ‘We’re going to cut it off,’ they will get the equipment, military equipment and other things from Russia and China. And I’m not going to tell a country that’s spending hundreds of billions of dollars — and has helped me out [to] do one thing very importantly, keep oil prices down so they’re not going to 100 and 150 dollars a barrel. And I’m not going to destroy the economy for our country by being foolish with Saudi Arabia. It’s about America first.”

Donald Trump
Trump talks to reporters about a meeting with the king of Saudi Arabia, Oct. 15, 2018. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Trump’s formulation — that the Saudis needed to be protected over their role in a ghastly murder so as not to disrupt lucrative arms deals — was too much for Sen. Bob Corker, then the Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “To equate the probable murder of a journalist who worked for a U.S. institution, to equate that with our ability to sell arms … it was hard to believe that any president would stoop to that level of equivocation,” he said. “It was a low moment, in my opinion, as far as the moral leadership of the United States of America.”

And yet as he looks back on it, Bolton — who would famously break with Trump in a tell-all book — continues to defend the White House response, comparing MBS to the notorious Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza, who was backed by the U.S. for decades despite a lengthy record of human rights abuses.

“Franklin Roosevelt once said of Anastasio Somoza, a Central American dictator, ‘He may be an SOB, but he’s our SOB.’ I’m with Roosevelt on this,” said Bolton in his interview for “Conspiracyland.” “I don’t know where the rest of you all are, but that’s just the way it goes.”

Are you saying that MBS is your SOB?” he was asked during the “Conspiracyland” interview.

No, I’m saying he’s the U.S.’s SOB,” he responded. “If somebody’s got a different idea of how to deal with Saudi Arabia, then let’s hear it.”

While running for president, Joe Biden suggested he did have a very different idea. “We [are] going to in fact make them pay the price and make them in fact the pariah that they are, and so they have to be held accountable,” he said during a 2019 debate when asked about Khashoggi’s murder.

Antony Blinken
Secretary of State Antony Blinken. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/Pool/AFP via Getty Images)

But when he had the chance to do so in February, the price was a marginal one. Biden’s new director of national intelligence, Avril Haines, released a report that had been withheld by the Trump White House and that found that MBS did approve the operation that killed Khashoggi.

But the report was skimpy, containing few new details about what the U.S. intelligence community knew about the murder. And the administration declined to impose any sanctions or punishment for MBS or any other high-level Saudi figures — a failure that Secretary of State Antony Blinken struggled to defend at a press conference.

“I would say the relationship with Saudi Arabia is an important one,” Blinken said. “We have significant ongoing interests. We remain committed to the defense of the kingdom. So what we’ve done by the actions we’ve taken is not to rupture the relationship but to recalibrate it to be more in line with our interests and our values. This is bigger than any one person.”

And as if to underscore the point, the Pentagon confirmed that just days before the release of the report essentially accusing MBS of murder, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin called his counterpart in Riyadh, the Saudi defense minister, the very same MBS. The purpose, according to a Pentagon readout of the call, was to “reaffirm the strategic defense partnership between the United States and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.”

In case you missed it:

Episode 1: “Exclusive: Saudi assassins picked up illicit drugs in Cairo to kill Khashoggi”

Episode 2: “Arms, harems and a Trump-owned yacht: How a Khashoggi family member helped mold the U.S.-Saudi relationship”

Episode 3: “‘I just fell apart crying heartbreak to you’: A murdered journalist’s years-long relationship with Osama bin Laden”

Episode 4: “From royal insider to target: How the Arab Spring propelled Jamal Khashoggi into the Saudi leadership’s crosshairs”

Episode 5: “‘A personality type that feels absolutely no guardrails’: How Saudi Arabia’s leader charmed Washington while cracking down on opponents”

Episode 6: A direct trail of blood drops’ leads from a Twitter hack to Jamal Khashoggi’s murder

Episode 7: “’He gave nobody a full view of his life’: In his final days, Jamal Khashoggi juggled a secret wife in the U.S. and a fiancée in Turkey”

Bonus Episode 1: “Training the assassins

Cover thumbnail photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: courtesy of Hanan Al-Atr (2), Dylan Martinez/Reuters

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‘Conspiracyland’ podcast: The secret lives and brutal death of Jamal Khashoggi

Jamal Khashoggi was Saudi Arabia’s most prominent journalist, writing for one of the United States’ premier newspapers. What happened to him inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, on Oct. 2, 2018, was shocking. And the more one digs into his murder, the more it becomes clear: This was the result of a real-life conspiracy. The latest season of Yahoo News’ “Conspiracyland” podcast is out now.

Episode 1: The Henchman

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Episode 2: The Arms Dealer’s Harem

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Episode 3: Jamal and Osama

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Episode 4: A Revolution Crushed

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Episode 5: The Rise of the Bullet Guy

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Episode 6: Influence Operations

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Episode 7: A Tale of Two Women

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Episode 8: “Anatomy of a Cover-up”

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Bonus Episode 1: “Training the Assassins”

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Bonus Episode 2: “Khashoggi and the 9/11 lawsuit”

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