According to the top stories in both the New York Times and Washington Post this morning, somebody in the CIA has leaked that Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) ordered the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Of course no sensible observer is remotely surprised, but the Trump administration had been working mightily to deny this obvious fact, with reports surfacing that they were plotting to send Turkish cleric Gulen to Turkey as authoritarian President Erdogan has long been demanding (Gulen is Erdogan’s all-purpose scapegoat for everything) in the hopes that Erdogan would stop making it clear that MbS was guilty of ordering the assassination. But now there is no point in that as the cat is fully out of the bag, no matter how much this leak will anger Trump (Fake CIA leak!). Indeed, it may well have been reported unhappiness by various government officials in the face of this effort to sacrifice Gulen that triggered the leak.
What is a bit surprising is that the leak involved publicizing that NSA bugs the Saudi embassy, although I would imagine that anybody there who did not know that was stupid. But crucial to the leak is both that MbS phoned his full brother, Khalid bin Salman, the Saudi ambassador to the US, ordering him to phone Khashoggi and tell him he should go to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul to the documents he needed to marry his Turkish fiancee, and that he would be safe in doing so, and that KbS then followed through and made the phone call. The only thing we do not know is whether KbS was in on what was going to happen to Khashoggi or not when he made the phone call.
This really puts Trump on the spot, although ultimately he put himself there by being such a sucker for all this phony baloney nonsense MbS has fed him through Jared Kushner. Indeed, reports have it that Trump had begun to figure out that MbS was not all that reliable. Trump already some time ago backed off supporting the ridiculous MbS campaign against Qatar, which hosts the largest US military base in the Persian Gulf, with that campaign a total flop, even as MbS persists with it. Also, at least some in the administration (Pompeo and Mattis at least) seem to have begun to sour on US support for the Saudi war in Yemen. The US is going to stop refueling their bombing planes there, although reportedly they do not really need that US support, so not too big a deal.
Nevertheless, it is clear that Trump has really not wanted to have to do much more and wanted the Saudis to have a “better coverup,” he having already used that word in a critical way. Now the cover is completely and hopelessly gone, although it is highly likely that inadvertently Trump himself encouraged this assassination, making MbS think he could get away with anything and that given Khashoggi was writing for the “Enemy of the People” Washington Post, he might even be doing Trump a favor.
Trump’s main argument has been that he did not want to lose $110 billion in arms sales, but in fact there never was anywhere near that number. Much of what was signed was already in the pipeline from Obaama, and most of the rest was just vague statements of intent. If MbS were to react by canceling Trump-made agreements, it would amount to very little. This was always a matter of farcical propaganda, which made it all the more nauseating as Trump clearly valued it way over any concern for what happened to Khashoggi.
The other important area has to do with oil markets, which had already gotten into a state of high volatility over Trump’s reimposing of sanctions on Iran, a stupid move itself. This economic war on Iran of course is the other reason why we are supposed to be big pals with KSA and ignore them murdering their own people. But that whole effort has been a farce, given Iran adhering to the JCPOA nuclear agreement. As it is, apparently out of fear higher oil prices would hurt GOP chances in the midterms, Trump got the Saudis to increase oil production, but then oil prices tanked, partly on weaker demand due to the decelerating growth in China, so now we have them all scrambling with the Saudis now announcing production cuts to push the prices back up. It is not at all cleat that there is any clear US interest in all that, so however Trump might sanction them, if he actually does, will probably not have much impact on that already discombobulated market.
Anyway, Trump is now facing a hard choice. Does he openly show how much he loves authoritarians murdering dissident journalists even when they are based in the US and work for US news media? He praised Putin for being “strong” when asked about him allowing dissident journalists to be killed. But this is a different kettle of fish, and even lots of Republicans in the Senate are up in arms about this matter. It is clear that MbS has really messed up, and now Trump is on the hot seat.