When the Turkish government provided the United States with an audio recording of the dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi being murdered in Saudi Arabia’s Istanbul consulate, President Donald Trump declined to listen to it. There was, he told an interviewer, “no reason” for him to hear the tape; others could do that for him. Later, when a reporter asked Trump’s national-security adviser, John Bolton, whether he had heard the tape, he said he hadn’t and questioned why anyone would think he should: “Unless you speak Arabic, what are you going to get from it, really?” The reporter mentioned the possibility of listening to it with an interpreter, but Bolton replied that he might as well just read the transcript—though he didn’t quite say whether he had done even that much. No one pointed out to Bolton that the sounds of a man being tortured to death and dismembered with a bone saw might be difficult to transcribe. Between Trump’s comments and Bolton’s, it was hard to avoid the impression that the president and his closest advisers would rather not be confronted with audible evidence of a serious crime they still refuse to take seriously.
CIA Director Gina Haspel also does not speak Arabic, but nevertheless flew all the way to Turkey to hear the tapes. They seem to have made an impression on her. In a closed-door briefing on December 4, she provided U.S. senators with details of the recordings and other classified information that led the intelligence agency to conclude, with “high confidence,” that the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammad bin Salman, had ordered Khashoggi’s murder. Despite having been assured a week earlier by Defense Secretary James Mattis that there was “no smoking gun that the crown prince was involved,” senators of both parties found Haspel’s presentation convincing. After the briefing, Republican Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told reporters that “if the crown prince went in front of a jury, he would be convicted in thirty minutes.” Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said there was “zero chance, zero, that this happened in such an organized fashion without the crown prince.” This was a far cry from the president’s willful agnosticism about whether a U.S. ally’s de facto head of state had orchestrated an assassination: “Maybe he did and maybe he didn’t!”