It was just last week that I criticized the comments of U.S. President Donald Trump about Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi who vanished from the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, as he said, "here we go again with 'you're guilty' until proven innocent," resembling the situation to the sexual assault accusations made against the new Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh.
Trump had suggested that "rogue killers" could be responsible for the mysterious disappearance of Khashoggi. The Saudis had not given up denying that they killed the famous columnist yet, and Trump's explanation was showing Riyadh a fast and easy way out of a huge diplomatic crisis.
Following Trump's advice, the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (widely known as MBS), admitted two days later that Khashoggi was killed inside the consulate claiming that he died in a "fistfight" and put the blame on his most loyal entrusted generals. Eighteen Saudi nationals were said to have been detained. Gen Ahmed al-Asiri, one of the most favored security officials of MBS and the deputy head of Saudi intelligence was sacked as well as Saud al-Qahtani, one of his influential advisers.
Trump first said that he found the Saudi's explanation for Khashoggi's death "credible" welcoming it as an "important first step," but then he said he was "not satisfied" with it, contradicting himself. Further changing his tune, Trump said on Tuesday "the worst cover-up in the history of cover-ups" was staged and it was "a total fiasco." Even the harshest of his opponents have finally agreed with him. When asked about the possible role of the crown prince, Trump said, "He's running things and so if anybody were going to be informed, it would be him." He also said he did not believe King Salman had prior knowledge of the operation. All this happened in just five days.
What is the reason behind this superfast, but also embarrassing, change of mind from a world leader such as Trump, who is known for his obstinacy? Most of us are quite sure that Trump would not have chosen to put distance between himself and MBS, who has a very close relationship with his son-in-law, a key adviser on the Middle East. Following U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's visit to Turkey after Riyadh, where he was posing for photos with MBS smiling, shaking hands and having a very intimate talk, CIA Director Gina Haspel was in Turkey this week. Before leaving Riyadh, Pompeo said that, "[the] Saudi leadership strongly denied any knowledge of what took place in their consulate in Istanbul." As we figured out from the statement of the Saudi officials in which they admitted the killing of Khashoggi two days later, it was a lie or deception. Then again, Trump was right when he said, "Obviously, there's been deception, and there's been lies."
In addition to all this, Trump also had a phone conversation with President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on Monday right after the Turkish leader announced that he would make a statement about the Khashoggi case on Tuesday during his party's weekly meeting. The two leaders were not in contact since the tensions between Washington and Ankara escalated after a dispute over the fate of Andrew Brunson, an American pastor detained in Turkey. They just shook hands on Oct. 25 during the 73rd U.N. General Assembly in New York but had not engaged on key sources of tension. Even after Brunson was released and returned back to the U.S., Trump and Erdoğan did not have a direct conversation. Whenever Erdoğan was asked if he would think of calling Trump, he would say that he had no purpose to make such a call but he would answer if his counterpart called.
Erdoğan's early announcement about his speech on Tuesday increased expectations all around the world. He didn't mention any audio or video recording of the killing, apparently there is one, as no one, even the biggest intelligence services of the world, have denied its existence, and didn't give much detail about findings during the search of the consulate or the consul general's residence by crime scene investigators. His speech might have disappointed the ones who couldn't wait to see the end of the most shocking story of the year; however, he gave us many hints while confirming many pieces of evidence leaked unofficially to local and international media in the last three weeks.
First of all, he rejected the Saudi version of the killing of Khashoggi, shooting down claims of several newspapers that implied that Ankara might have had a dirty deal with Riyadh. He said, "Intelligence and security institutions have evidence showing the murder was planned… Pinning such a case on some security and intelligence members will not satisfy us or the international community," and added that the "savage murder" of Khashoggi was a premeditated, meticulously planned political operation, with Saudi officials scoping out forest areas outside of Istanbul the day before he died.
Erdoğan neither mentioned the name of the crown prince nor made a reference to him, and yet, he posed really tough questions for the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia and basically pointed his finger at him. He stressed his belief that King Salman was sincere and cooperating with the inquiry, but also put more pressure on the king to take the wheel and do more.
It was crystal clear when Erdoğan said that he was waiting for a quick answer on the whereabouts of Khashoggi's body and the identity of the alleged local accomplice who dumped the body that his speech was not only rhetorical.
Asking if there were other people or circles implicated in other countries they had to be included in that investigation as well, since it was a political murder; he mad us recall that one of the private jets used to fly the 15 Saudi officials for the killing of Khashoggi left for Cairo when they took off from Istanbul Atatürk Airport, and the second flew to Dubai. As Erdoğan calmly spoke of Khashoggi's murder on Tuesday, Trump changes his tune day by day. We are nowhere near seeing closure on this case – it looks like we are just at the beginning.
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