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Saudi government reportedly grappling with Khashoggi explanation to save face

On Monday, media reports suggested that the Saudi government plans to admit that journalist Jamal Khashoggi was killed during an interrogation gone wrong at the consulate in Istanbul. President Donald Trump meanwhile said that “rogue killers” might have been responsible. Nick Schifrin and Judy Woodruff discuss the latest developments.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Now a new crisis point in the disappearance of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Reports swirled today that the Saudi government will admit that he was killed at its consulate in Istanbul, Turkey.

    CNN and The New York Times say that the Saudis blame an interrogation gone wrong. The Saudis finally permitted Turkish investigators to search the consulate today. It's not clear what they found.

    And in Washington, President Trump announced he was sending Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to meet with Saudi King Salman.

  • President Donald Trump:

    The king firmly denied any knowledge of it. He didn't really know. Maybe — I don't want to get into his mind, but it sounded to me like maybe these could have been rogue killers. Who knows.

    We're going to try getting to the bottom of it very soon. But his was a flat denial.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And our foreign affairs correspondent, Nick Schifrin, joins me now for some insight on what happened today.

    So the president's talking about rogue killers. Does this sound like something we're now going to hear from the Saudis?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    It sounds like a lot like what we're going to hear from the Saudis.

    According to the CNN report, the Saudis will admit that they wanted to interrogate Jamal Khashoggi, but there was some kind of rogue team or rogue officer who went too far and killed him. And, of course, rogue exactly is exactly what we heard the president say today.

    According to CNN, the statement will also say the Saudis will admit wanting to bring Khashoggi to Saudi Arabia from Turkey. And, of course, that's a NATO ally. And that itself is controversial.

    But the Saudi and Turkish experts I talked to you today say this is a — an attempt to have some kind of face-saving solution to this crisis, to admit some Saudi error and to punish some Saudis, in a way to try and avoid some kind of break in the U.S.-Saudi relationship or the Saudi-Turkish relationship, and, crucially, a way to make sure that Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince who is at the center of this controversy, survives.

    The question is — whether that works is not clear.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, Nick, but given all the details that have been — again, sourced details that have been coming out, is this going to be credible?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The Saudis experts I speak to say what is not credible is the idea that 15 people would leave Saudi Arabia in two jets from Riyadh, fly to Istanbul, be associated or be around the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul without Mohammed bin Salman's knowledge.

    And so what the statement will say, according to the CNN report, is that Mohammed bin Salman might have been aware of the rendition, but wasn't responsible for the murder. That's the distinction, it seems, this statement is going to make.

    The problem with that is that there's been already a lot of questions about Mohammed bin Salman. You talk to experts, and this is what they say. There's questions about the military operation in Yemen, diplomatic initiatives with Qatar, Lebanon and questions about human rights.

    And so what these experts are saying now is that, even if there's an attempt to have some kind of face-saving solution to this crisis, Mohammed bin Salman's reputation as a reformer, that might have been hit. And that leads to the question, could Mohammed bin Salman lose his job as crown prince?

    King Salman has replaced two crown princes in the past. Most experts say that probably won't happen. But some of his responsibilities may be taken away.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And we will just have to see what the U.S. response is.

    Nick Schifrin, thank you very much.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Thank you.

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