President Trump openly bragged about protecting Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman from scrutiny after the royal was accused of orchestrating the murder and dismemberment of a Washington Post columnist, Bob Woodward reports in his new book. Trump told Woodward in January that he “saved” the prince’s “ass,” justifying his efforts by noting that the Saudis bought arms from the United States, and explaining the country has oil and “religious monuments” that bestow “real power.”
Asked repeatedly if he believed bin Salman ordered Jamal Khashoggi’s murder, Trump answered “He says he didn’t do it.” The CIA has concluded Salman did order the murder. Intelligence reports indicate that 15 Saudi agents flew to Istanbul in October 2018, where they murdered Khashoggi inside the Saudi Consulate, sawed his body into pieces, and removed it in several plastic trash bags.
Acting on that assessment, members of both parties advanced measures to hold bin Salman accountable, including a resolution labeling him complicit in Khashoggi’s murder. The Senate unanimously voted to approve that measure in December of 2018, and every member of the House — save for seven Republicans — voted for the resolution as well.
But Trump and members of his administration have openly and consistently expressed doubt about bin Salman’s involvement, contradicting the U.S. intelligence community’s assessment. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has said there was no “direct reporting” of MBS’s guilt, while former Secretary of Defense James Mattis maintained there was no “smoking gun.”
Trump’s refusal to hold bin Salman accountable has had major consequences for the region. A majority of lawmakers have voted to end U.S. support for Saudi Arabia’s military efforts in Yemen — a war that has perpetuated a horrific humanitarian crisis in the region. In 2019, bipartisan majorities in the House and Senate passed legislation to block or limit U.S. weapons sales to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Jordan. The votes came after the Trump administration used an emergency declaration to ink a deal that would sell $8.1 billion in armaments to the three countries without Congress’ approval.
But the bills to limit arms sales never became law. Trump blocked them with a veto that lawmakers were unable to override.
Here is Bob Woodward’s account of his January 22 conversation with Trump about Khashoggi’s murder and bin Salman’s role. The passage appears in Woodward’s book, Rage, on bookstore shelves September 15.
“That is one of the most gruesome things,” I said. “You yourself have said.”
“Yeah, but Iran is killing 36 people a day, so —” Trump said.
I pressed him on MBS’s role in the Khashoggi killing. My reporting showed that Trump had told others about the crown prince. “I saved his ass,” Trump said after the U.S. outcry over Khasshogi’s murder. “I was able to get Congress to leave him alone. I was able to stop them.” He’d sarcastically told members of Congress “Let them trade with Russia instead. Let them buy a thousand planes from Russia instead of the United States. Fellas, you’ve got to be smart.”
In May 2019, Trump used his emergency authority to bypass the objections of Congress and sell the Saudis $8 billion in arms.
Now, Trump said, “Well, I understand what you’re saying, and I’ve gotten involved very much. I know everything about the whole situation.” He said Saudi Arabia spent hundreds of billions in the United Statesand was responsible for millions of jobs. Of MBS, Trump said, “He will always say that he didn’t do it. He says that to everybody, and frankly I’m happy that he says that. But he will say that to you, he will say that to Congress, and he will say that to everybody. He’s never said he did do it.”
“Do you believe that he did it?” I asked.
“No, he says that he didn’t do it.”
“I know, but do you really believe —”
“He says very strongly that he didn’t do it,” Trump said. “Bob, they spent $400 billion over a fairly short period of time.”
Trump was referring, as he often did, to the deals struck in advance of his trip to Saudi Arabia in 2017. In a fact-check, the Associated Press wrote, “Actual orders under the arms deal are far smaller, and neither country has announced nor substantiated Trump’s repeated assertion that the Saudis are poised to inject $450 billion overall into the U.S. economy.”
“And you know, they’re in the Middle East,” Trump went on. Saudi Arabia was an important ally. “You know, they’re big. Because of their religious monuments, you know, they have real power. They have oil, but they also have great monuments for religion. You know that, right? For that religion.”