The slow-motion disaster of Trump's Khashoggi strategy

CNN/ Newswire | 12/6/2018, 12:01 p.m.
Shortly before 1 p.m. on Tuesday, having just received a classified briefing from the director of the CIA in the ...
The slow-motion disaster of Trump's Khashoggi strategy

Rather than getting a direct brief from CIA director Gina Haspel, as many had requested, lawmakers got a limited version that emphasized a technical distinction that the CIA had no direct proof that MBS had ordered Khashoggi's murder, despite the fact that the CIA rarely includes direct proof in its assessments.

It didn't help that lawmakers woke up that morning to a hardline op-ed by Pompeo in the pages of the Wall Street Journal. In it, Pompeo criticized "the Capitol Hill caterwauling and media pile-on" the murder had elicited, and equated critics of the Saudis with supporters of President Barack Obama's Iran deal -- a sentiment that, according to one senior GOP aide, landed "like a lead balloon."

The frustration led to a bipartisan revolt for all to see, live on the floor of the US Senate. Minutes after Pompeo and Mattis left, a majority of senators, including 14 Republicans, voted to advance a resolution to curtail US support for Saudi Arabia's war in Yemen -- a resolution that had failed in March, and that Pompeo and Mattis had urged them to reject.

A week later, Graham landed his own op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, in which he defended Congress' right to oppose the administration in order to "safeguard the country's long-term interests, values and reputation."

"After all," Graham wrote, "someone's got to do it."

Leaks and infighting

For its part, the administration has condemned the murder and imposed sanctions on 17 individuals linked to it. At the same time, Trump and top administration officials have consistently cited the historic alliance between the two countries, and framed allegations of MBS's involvement as an attack that could threaten the relationship. It has rationalized that stance with what it claims is the lack of a final conclusion by the CIA on the question of whether MBS directed the murder.

But that rationale has deteriorated as a steady drip of details related to the CIA's assessment of the murder have painted an increasingly damning picture related to the crown prince's potential involvement.

Last month, the CIA delivered a report on the murder to lawmakers in the "Gang of Eight"-- the chairmen and top Democrats on the two Intelligence Committees and the four House and Senate party leaders. When details leaked, including that the CIA had determined with a high degree of confidence that MBS directed the killing, Trump and White House officials blamed the CIA for briefing too many people, according to several US officials. In turn, members of the intelligence community were angry over the way that Haspel was thrust into the middle of a political fight between the White House and Congress.

Last week as Pompeo and Mattis visited the Hill, Haspel's absence took center stage following lawmakers' claims that the White House blocked her from appearing. The CIA issued a rare on the record statement rebutting that, saying "the notion that anyone told Director Haspel not to attend today's briefing is false." And multiple US officials pointed out that her preference all along was to stay out of the spotlight.