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The New Yorker: «Rogue Killers»

“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,” President Trump told reporters outside the White House on Monday, as he headed for a helicopter in which he would survey the damage from Hurricane Michael in Florida and Georgia. The monarch is King Salman; “his” citizen is Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist who had been living in unofficial exile in Virginia, and writing a column for the Washington Post. On the afternoon of October 2nd, Khashoggi entered the Saudi Embassy in Istanbul, to deal with paperwork that would allow him to marry his Turkish fiancée. She was waiting outside, and would wait, and wait, without ever seeing him again. (My colleague Robin Wright has written extensively about the case.) A reasonable conclusion from Trump’s account of his call with the King is that nobody is seriously denying that what took place inside was terrible, tragic, and almost certainly fatal—not even the Saudis, who had earlier claimed that Khashoggi had walked out, somehow dodging the cameras pointed at the consulate. Now there’s a new story, which Trump succinctly provided.

Speaking of King Salman, Trump said, “Maybe—I, I don’t want to get into his mind—but it sounded to me like maybe these could have been rogue killers. Who knows?” Someone knows. These would have been rogue killers operating inside a facility tightly controlled by the King’s kingdom, which is, in turn, tightly controlled by the King’s son, Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince. It has, of late, been fashionable to refer to the crown prince, a purported modernizer, simply as M.B.S. (He has been talked up by, among others, the White House official known simply as Jared.) According to the Times, in the wake of the Khashoggi affair, the moniker “took on a grim new meaning among the plugged-in set of Washington: Mister Bone Saw,” a reference to one of the tools that, Turkish authorities have told reporters, a Saudi team allegedly brought into the consulate. That team also flew into Turkey on a chartered jet that, according to the Wall Street Journal, belonged to a corporate entity controlled by M.B.S.

Still, in keeping with the line that Trump seemed prepared to accept, there are now multiple press reports that the Saudis might be willing to concede that this was a “botched operation.” The team wasn’t supposed to kill Khashoggi, in other words. But then what was it supposed to do—just kidnap him? American officials have told the Post that there are intercepts indicating that the crown prince wanted Khashoggi to be lured back to Saudi Arabia, to be detained there, or worse. The crown prince has already locked up a good number of people, including women’s-rights activists. (This is the same M.B.S. who collected accolades for letting women in the kingdom drive; it had to be understood as his gift, apparently, not their right.) Or were the alleged killers just supposed to beat or torture Khashoggi? Turkish authorities have told reporters that they have surveillance recordings capturing graphic violence. At what point is one supposed to understand that the operation turned rogue?

And was that a rogue cleaning team seen at the Istanbul consulate on Monday, according to the Post, before Turkish investigators finally were able to take a good look inside? The investigators remarked afterward on the astringent, chemical smell inside.

Even the alibi suggested by the “rogue killers” scenario is not one of innocence but of an intent to commit crimes sufficiently beyond the view of the world to stave off the world’s attention. After all, the world hasn’t had much to say about the way that the Saudi government has conducted its war in Yemen, heedless of civilian deaths. If nothing else, the Khashoggi case should instigate a discussion about how the weapons that America sells to Saudi Arabia, and the technical support it affords the kingdom, are deployed in that conflict—a complicity problem that preceded the Khashoggi case. Trump doesn’t like that kind of talk. Instead, he has emphasized, in recent days, how much money the weapons sales bring in.

Meanwhile, Trump seemed ready to accept that M.B.S might also be in the dome of obliviousness, saying, of his conversation with the King, “It sounded like he, and also the crown prince, had no knowledge.” The denial, Trump said, “could not have been stronger.” The story, though, could hardly be weaker. Trump knows, he told reporters, that “the world is talking” about the case of Jamal Khashoggi. “We’ll get to the bottom of it, O.K.?” Trump said. He had directed Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to “immediately get on a plane,” with instructions to fly to Turkey, Saudi Arabia, or anywhere he likes. Who knows what or whom Pompeo might come across: rogue killers, a rogue prince, or a rogue kingdom?

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