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Posted October 16, 2018 10:12 p.m. EDT

The Saudi Cover-Up Crumbles

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If Secretary of State Mike Pompeo flew to Riyadh to read the Riot Act to Saudi rulers over the apparent murder of Jamal Khashoggi, he hid it well behind cheery smiles and professions of amity. But then outrage has been conspicuously absent from the Trump administration in the two weeks since Khashoggi entered the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, never to be seen again.

Pompeo first went to see King Salman and thanked him for his commitment to a “thorough, transparent and timely investigation,” according to a State Department spokeswoman. He then went on to see the real power behind the throne, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and here President Donald Trump joined in by phone. Trump on Twitter appeared to take at face value the prince’s claim that he knew nothing of what happened in the consulate and his promise of a “full and complete investigation.”

“Answers will be forthcoming shortly,” the president promised. Later he said that blaming the Saudi leadership was another case of “guilty until proven innocent.” We’ll see.

So far, the only investigations have been those carried out by the Turks. Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, said Tuesday that investigators who searched the consulate were looking into “toxic materials, and those materials being removed by painting them over.”

The Saudis have reportedly been searching for a cover story for the disappearance of the gadfly Saudi journalist, who had been living in self-imposed exile in the United States and writing columns for The Washington Post. Denial is no longer an option — Turkey appears to have pretty solid evidence that Khashoggi was killed by thugs flown in from Saudi Arabia — so the word in Washington is that the Saudis will try to claim an attempted kidnapping or interrogation gone bad.

On Monday, when Turkey had already leaked considerable evidence of a hit, Trump was behaving like a royal apologist. “Just spoke to the King of Saudi Arabia who denies any knowledge of whatever may have happened ‘to our Saudi Arabian citizen,'” he wrote on Twitter. A bit later he told reporters, “The denial was very, very strong,” adding: “It sounded to me like maybe these could have been rogue killers. Who knows?”

Actually, he probably does, if U.S. spy agencies are doing their job. But evidence of big-time malfeasance has not prevented Trump from admiring the likes of Vladimir Putin of Russia, Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi of Egypt or Kim Jong Un of North Korea (“we fell in love”).

Some of Trump’s more serious Republican supporters have taken a far less forgiving stance toward Saudi Arabia and its heir apparent. “This MBS figure to me is toxic,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, who is normally a close ally of the president, using the crown prince’s nickname. “This guy has got to go.”

There’s no question that Saudi Arabia is an important U.S. ally in the Middle East and that the relationship cannot be casually severed. Yet the White House should have been first to suspend participation in a major investment conference in Riyadh next week until the Saudis provided a credible account of Khashoggi’s fate, rather than leaving it to U.S. media organizations and business executives to take the lead in pulling out.

If Saudi Arabia is allowed to get away with some lame story about the apparent murder of Khashoggi, the world’s growing gang of autocrats will feel even less constraint. There are plenty of measures at Trump’s disposal that would send the right message, from personal sanctions against those behind the Khashoggi operation to a suspension of arms deliveries to Saudi Arabia. Trump’s aides, members of Congress and allied leaders need to insist that he take the lead in demanding that Saudi Arabia acknowledge what really happened, and why it’s terribly wrong.

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