On a day when foreign policy experts worldwide were almost uniformly accusing Saudi Arabia’s government of murdering a prominent dissident, President Donald Trump spoke to the Saudi king and then offered an alternative theory: “Rogue killers” may be to blame.
Trump’s suggestion drew widespread scorn and ridicule, including charges that he could be complicit in a Saudi cover-up. Hours later, CNN reported that the Saudi government was prepared to admit that journalist Jamal Khashoggi was killed in a botched interrogation that was carried out without high-level approval.
The details of Trump’s Monday phone call with Saudi King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud are not known, and it is unclear whether the Arab monarch actually floated the “rogue killers” line in his conversation with the president.
Regardless, Trump appeared to be endorsing an emerging Saudi line on the killing about which many experts are dubious. But it was hardly the first time that Trump has seemed to parrot a foreign government’s suspect line on a highly sensitive issue. In recent months the president has startled observers with statements that echoed talking points from capitals ranging from Moscow to Beijing to Pyongyang.
This summer, for instance, Trump alarmed Pentagon officials and North Korea experts when he declared that the United States would stop joint military exercises with South Korea, echoing North Korean rhetoric by referring to the exercises as “war games” that are “very provocative.”
During a private meeting with G-7 leaders in June, Trump reportedly said that Crimea is Russian because the people there speak Russian — a position that closely mirrors that of Russian President Vladimir Putin, but is widely rejected as Kremlin propaganda in Western capitals. During an infamous joint appearance with Putin in Helsinki this summer, Trump cited Putin’s assurances that the Kremlin did not interfere with the 2016 presidential election.
Trump has also made statements that appear to reflect the position of his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, whom Trump courted in his initial months as president before recently adopting a tougher stance toward Beijing. After his Commerce Department announced a major action against the Chinese electronics maker ZTE on national security grounds in May, threatening to put the company out of business, Trump tweeted that he was working with Xi to reverse the move. “Too many jobs in China lost,” Trump wrote, in what struck many ZTE critics as an oddly sympathetic response.
The comments underscore a uniquely Trumpian phenomenon. Perhaps more than any president in modern history, Trump is often willing — and sometimes even eager — to uncritically repeat the assertions of authoritarian leaders, breaking with his own government experts and infuriating Democrats and Republicans alike in the process.
“The surprising thing for most American observers is the president’s readiness to accept what appear to be very flimsy excuses for behavior that the United States generally has found reprehensible and would bring consequences,” said Jeff Rathke, a former U.S. diplomat and president of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies. “By failing to hold countries accountable for an outrageous act like an assassination on Turkish soil, the United States could increase the likelihood that our friends and our adversaries will lower the bar for engaging in precisely that activity.”
Where some critics see a sinister willingness on Trump’s part to accept foreign propaganda, others point to a personality quirk: The president often internalizes the thinking of the last person with whom he has spoken, leading some aides to pay eleventh-hour visits to the Oval Office in an effort to sway Trump’s thinking. A former administration official said that foreign leaders have sought to do the same.
While it’s unclear whether Trump’s “rogue killers” comment came from the Saudi king, they seemed to represented a softening of the president’s tone from remarks he made over the weekend, including in a “60 Minutes” interview in which he said that the Saudis had denied responsibility but added: “Could it be them? Yes.”
Trump spoke by phone with the Saudi king shortly before speaking to reporters at the White House on Monday.
“I don’t want to get into his mind — but it sounded to me like maybe these could have been rogue killers,” Trump said.
Even if the Saudis do cast the incident as an interrogation which went wrong, “there will need to be consequences,” said a former U.S. official in touch with the Trump administration. “However, the strategic importance of the kingdom to U.S. security, energy, and regional issues will sustain the relationship.”
The reported Saudi findings on the incident could prove politically helpful for Trump, even if they’re not true. “Some will have to believe it, some will want to believe it, others will never believe it,” said a former U.S. official familiar with Saudi thinking. “But it creates enough of a tea leaf to give people cover to believe what they want to believe.”
Declaring that the operation against Khashoggi was “rogue” could also be an attempt to shield from criticism Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, the increasingly powerful heir to the throne who is close to Trump’s son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner. Saudi watchers have said it is highly unlikely that such an operation could have been carried out with the crown prince’s knowledge.
“It’s stretches credulity to the breaking point that 15 Saudi agents could show up in Turkey and do this without the knowledge of the Saudi government,” said Thomas Wright, a senior fellow in the Project on International Order and Strategy at the Brookings Institution. “That seems very, very unlikely.”
A senior Saudi official stressed to POLITICO, however, “The kingdom is trying to deal with this very responsibly.” The official added that Saudi King Salman “has full confidence in the crown prince. Everyone has full confidence in the crown prince.”
Khashoggi, a journalist who wrote for the Washington Post and was critical of the Saudi government, disappeared on Oct. 2 after going into the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. Turkish officials have said they have evidence that he was murdered by Saudi agents, but Saudi leaders have denied that accusation.
Critics pounced on Trump’s Monday remarks suggesting the Saudis might not be responsible for the murder.
“The U.S. must not be complicit in an effort to cover-up this heinous crime,” Senator Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) said.
Robert Jordan, who served as President George W. Bush’s ambassador to Saudi Arabia,” added, “Blindly relying on denials is poor tradecraft. It’s a very dangerous position.”
Jordan, in an interview, said there is good reason to question the denials of Saudi leaders, recounting that just weeks after 9/11, Saudi Arabia’s King Salman, then a prince, falsely told him there were no Saudis among the hijackers and blamed the attack on Israel. Fifteen of the 19 hijackers were Saudi citizens.
Trump’s response to the murder echoed his reaction to U.S. intelligence officials’ assessment that Russia meddled in the 2016 election in an attempt to benefit his candidate for president. During his July press conference with Putin, Trump appeared to endorse the Russian leader’s denials.
“I have great confidence in my intelligence people, but I will tell you that President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today,” Trump said at the time. (White House aides later walked back his remarks amid global outrage.)
Trump’s willingness to take Putin and Saudi Arabia’s King Salman at their word has shaken confidence that Trump is willing to hold authoritarian leaders to account.
“When he wants to turn a blind eye to something, as long as the person he’s talking to denies it, that’s usually enough for him,” Wright said. “If anyone is going to lead on this, it has to be Congress. It’s not going to be him.”
White House officials, who long ago grew accustomed to Trump’s dizzying array of off-the-cuff remarks, did little to aggressively counter the impression that the president was siding with the Saudis.
Aides, who declined to comment on the record, privately insisted that Trump is taking the situation seriously, pointing to his comments in the “60 Minutes“ interview. They noted that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who departed for Riyadh on Monday, has been tasked with getting to the bottom of the incident.
Asked during the “60 Minutes” interview if he believed the Saudis murdered Khashoggi, Trump said the United States “would be very upset and angry if that were the case. As of this moment, they deny it. And deny it vehemently. Could it be them? Yes.”
The former administration official said Trump’s approach to international affairs is heavily influenced by his personal relationships with world leaders, adding that he tends to trust those he likes and distance himself from those he doesn’t — regardless of decades-old alliances and political norms.
Trump, who has shown an affinity for strongman leaders, has developed what he believes are close relationships with Putin, Xi and — with the help of Kushner — the Saudis. In contrast, his relationship with European allies and even Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, is strained.
Democrats pounced on Trump’s comments, using them to highlight the many well-known men that Trump has sided with since taking office.
“King Salman denies it. Vladimir Putin denies it. Roy Moore denies it. Brett Kavanaugh denies it,” Representative Adam Schiff (Calif.), the top Democrat on the House intelligence Committee, tweeted on Monday. “In the President’s world, the truth doesn’t matter. Admission is weakness. Denial is everything. The more vehement the better. But don’t ask Trump. He denies it.”