Week In Politics: The Midterms And Trump's Response To Jamal Khashoggi
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
After 17 days of uncertainty, there is confirmation tonight from Saudi Arabia that Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi is dead. The report came from Saudi state TV, and the Saudi kingdom is expressing, quote, "deep regret" over his death. Saudi prosecutors say they believe a fight broke out between Khashoggi and people who met him at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. That fight, they say, led to his death. Eighteen Saudi nationals have been detained, and the No. 2 of the Saudi intelligence services has been fired. The White House meanwhile has released a statement saying the Trump administration is saddened and that they will continue to follow international investigations.
Well, we're going to talk through these developments in our regular week in politics segment with E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post. Hey, E.J.
E J DIONNE, BYLINE: Hey - good to be with you.
KELLY: And Bre Payton of The Federalist, welcome to you.
BRE PAYTON: Hi.
KELLY: Let me ask just for an initial reaction from you both and how you're thinking about squaring the account put out tonight by the Saudis with the account put out by the Saudis right after Khashoggi disappeared, which was that he'd left the consulate, walked away alive and well, Bre?
PAYTON: Yeah, I mean, I think that their explanation here that he got into a fight is paper-thin at best. And I think going forward, we need to definitely proceed with caution. There's a lot of questions that remain unanswered here, right? What exactly happened inside the consulate, and does it match up with the account that Saudi Arabia is saying, or is it closer to what Turkey was telling us, right? Is it closer to the bonesaw account of getting hacked to death while he was still alive and decapitated and all these horrible, gruesome things?
KELLY: Horrible details, yeah.
PAYTON: Is there audio to back up their account? They say - they have said that there is audio. They've said that there is video to back this up. Is that true?
KELLY: And we have - yeah.
PAYTON: I think we need to get all of those questions answered.
KELLY: We have yet to see or hear those tapes that Turkish officials say that they have. E.J., what's your initial reaction?
DIONNE: I have a very similar reaction. This sounds so much more like a cover story than an accurate account first because, as you said, they started out denying all of this. The number of people involved sure makes the fight inside the consulate sound - or the embassy sound like an odd thing to happen. And obviously there were so many gaps between this account and what the Turks have said. I think what's fascinating here is that their account seems to follow some of the comments that President Trump made. You just wonder, has there been discussion between the White House, between the Trump administration and the Saudis about what would be an acceptable explanation, something that they could get away with as far as Trump was concerned. It was he, for example, who raised the theory that rogue killers had...
DIONNE: ...Killed Khashoggi. Well, this sounds like a rogue killer's explanation.
KELLY: You're raising one of many questions that we don't have an answer to at this point. What was coordinated? What were the facts? All of that said, we do have some kind of an official account now from the Saudis, and it includes that Khashoggi is dead. Does that put pressure, E.J. - in your view, more pressure on President Trump, who has resisted blaming the Saudis - pressure on him to take a harder line?
DIONNE: I think there is a lot of pressure on President Trump to take a harder line. And he has hardened his line a bit publicly. He's said there should be a severe punishment and all of that. But all the indications from the administration are that they really do not want to break with the Saudis. They're not ready to take on the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman because they seem to see him as an ally. And Trump has suggested that he is a personal ally.
KELLY: Although it is not down only to the president. Congress has a role in this, as President Trump has pointed out. Senators - Lindsey Graham has weighed in. Republican Senator Graham has weighed in tonight saying he's very skeptical of the Saudi version of events. Bre, as you know, there's been a drumbeat for sanctions. There's been a drumbeat from Congress about taking a tougher line. Are you watching for that drumbeat to get louder?
PAYTON: Yeah, I mean, that honestly remains to be seen. I think ultimately, though, that this incident doesn't necessarily mean that we should reorient our entire Middle East strategy. I mean, at the end of the day, we have to remember that Khashoggi is not just a columnist for The Washington Post, but he was also a personal friend of Osama bin Laden and was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. This is an individual, you know - we have to take all of that into account. And I also think that when you are dealing with the Middle...
KELLY: This was someone who was operating as a journalist for The Washington Post and who was a U.S. resident and who it now appears was murdered...
PAYTON: And of...
KELLY: ...Inside the Saudi consulate.
PAYTON: And of course we do have an interest in making sure that U.S. permanent residents are protected as well. That's something that we're interested in doing. When you are talking about the Middle East, we're talking about a lot of bad actors here. I mean, if we don't - if we are not willing to work with Saudi Arabia, the other options are not so great either, right? We have Turkey, which jails the highest number of journalists anywhere in the world. We have Iran. We have a number of other countries that commit human rights atrocities just on the regular. So I think that we just really need to get all of our ducks in a row, and we need to, you know, maybe not necessarily change in one fell swoop our entire Middle East strategy over this.
DIONNE: Could I...
DIONNE: I just find it really disturbing to go back to his youth, this person who has been as close in the broadest sense of the word a liberal in terms of demanding greater freedom in the Middle East - to go back to his youth and tar him as a young member of the Muslim Brotherhood. I think this is a form of propaganda that can be - is being used to kind of justify a soft line here. People should read his final piece for The Washington Post which was really a powerful call for freedom in the Arab world that was really a red, white and blue sort of column. And that's who he has been, and that is the man who was killed.
KELLY: Let me ask you both to set aside for the moment questions about whether his past is relevant - his past before he became a journalist and came to the U.S. - and focus on this question of, does this represent a diplomatic crisis for the United States with Saudi Arabia, which has been a strong ally for generations, Bre?
PAYTON: I think that Saudi Arabia is aware that they really messed up here. You know, they've arrested - I think it was 15 people in the last hour. They announced that they've arrested those and dismissed five others. So I think that they...
KELLY: Eighteen, they're saying...
KELLY: ...Have been detained is the latest statement from the Saudi state TV. Go on.
PAYTON: Yeah, so I think it's clear that they're taking it seriously. And they should be taking this seriously. I think that they definitely need to, you know, rethink what they're doing and the way that they are going to treat American permanent residents that are living in their country.
KELLY: E.J. - last word to you. Thoughts on the - where this leaves the U.S.-Saudi relationship going forward.
DIONNE: I think the relationship is in crisis. I think the comments from some of the Republicans in Congress suggest that as well as Democrats. And I think it's fundamentally put to bed this notion that Mohammed bin Salman - MBS, as he is known...
KELLY: The crown prince...
DIONNE: The crown prince...
KELLY: ...The leader of Saudi Arabia.
DIONNE: ...Is an unalloyed reformer. I think this has really brought home the sides of his regime that are repressive. His image will never be the same as it was when he started out and was getting a lot of remarkably good press and that this is a big problem for him going forward.
KELLY: Lots of outstanding questions, lots more to discuss when we reconvene next week, same time, same place.
KELLY: E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and the Brookings Institution, thanks to you.
DIONNE: Great to be with you.
KELLY: And Bre Payton of The Federalist, thanks for coming in.
PAYTON: Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.