I'm Gabe Fleisher, reporting live from WUTP World HQ in my bedroom. It’s Thursday, October 18, 2018. 19 days until Election Day 2018. 747 days until Election Day 2020. Have comments, questions, suggestions, or tips? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Trump defends Saudi ally even as evidence in Khashoggi investigation points against him
President Donald Trump is once again on the opposite side of a high-stakes international issue as his intelligence agencies.
According to the New York Times, U.S. intelligence officials are "increasingly convinced that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia is culpable" in the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. And yet, President Trump has continued to defend Saudi Arabia in recent days, instead suggesting that "rogue killers" could have been responsible for Khashoggi's murder and warning against a rush to judgment in an Associated Press interview. "Here we go again with, you know, you're guilty until proven innocent," he said.
Per the Washington Post, the White House is working with the Saudi royal family to settle on "a mutually agreeable explanation" for Khashoggi's death that "avoid[s] implicating" the crown prince, who is one of Trump's closest allies on the world stage. But despite the Trump administration's attempts to find an exculpatory explanation, mounting evidence points to a connection by Prince Mohammed to Khashoggi's disappearance.
According to the Post, "U.S. intelligence reports, accounts from Khashoggi’s friends, passport records and social media profiles paint a picture of a brutal killing that at least had its roots in Mohammed’s desire to silence Khashoggi." In addition, the Times reports that "the prince’s complete control over the security services makes it highly unlikely that an operation [to kill Khashoggi] would have been undertaken without his knowledge"; according to the Times, nine of the 15 suspects identified by Turkey in Khashoggi's' disappearance worked for the Saudi security services, military, or other government ministries, including three who are linked to Prince Mohammed's security detail and another who was a frequent companion of the crown prince.
While intelligence agencies have yet to link the crown prince directly to the journalist's death, they are reportedly certain that he ordered an operation to lure Khashoggi back to Saudi Arabia from his Virginia home.
But President Trump has repeatedly mentioned in tweets and public comments that Prince Mohammed has "totally denied" any knowledge of Khashoggi's death. The Washington Post has also reported that behind the scenes, Trump "has repeatedly reached for reasons to protect the U.S.-Saudi relationship," pointing to arms sales to Saudi Arabia and to their partnership in countering Iran. "Saudi Arabia has been a very importnat ally of ours in the Middle East," Trump said Wednesday.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Bob Corker (R-TN) said Wednesday that the administration had "clamped down" on sharing intelligence about Khashoggi, canceling an intelligence briefing that had been scheduled for Tuesday. "I can only surmise that probably the intel is not painting a pretty picture as it relates to Saudi Arabia," Corker said. The senator also said of the evidence he had seen that "everything points not to just Saudi Arabia, but to MBS," referring to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. "This could not have happened without his approval."
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has also handled Saudi Arabia gingerly, emerging from meetings with the royal family on Tuesday smiling and urging caution in blaming the kingdom for Khashoggi's disappearance. Pompeo received a briefing from Turkish investigators on Wednesday, although he did not listen to an audio recording that Turkey says offers gruesome details of Khashoggi being killed, beheaded, and dismembered inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. President Trump told reporters on Wednesday that the U.S. has asked Turkey for any audio or video recordings of Khashoggi's murder "if it exists."
Meanwhile, President Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner, a White House senior adviser who was crucial in forming the close relationship between the Trump administration and Saudi Arabia, has remained mostly quiet since the Khashoggi crisis broke out. But, according to CNN, Kushner "has helped shape the administration's response to the situation." Kushner has developed a bond with Prince Mohammed, with whom he organized President Trump's first international trip (a visit to Riyadh) last year. Per CNN, "Kushner is known to have messaged with the prince on the communication app WhatsApp."
--- This morning, the Washington Post published the final opinion piece filed by Jamal Khashoggi before his disappearance. "This column perfectly captures his commitment and passion for freedom in the Arab world," Khashoggi's editor wrote in a note attached to the piece. "A freedom he apparently gave his life for."
Number of the Day: $1.06 billion
"Democratic candidates running for Congress this year collectively raised more than $1 billion for their campaigns — a record-shattering sum that highlights the party’s zeal to retake the House and Senate and underscores the enormous amount of money flowing into the midterm races.
"The $1.06 billion raised through the end of September surpasses the nearly $900 million collected by Republican candidates for Congress in 2012 — previously the largest haul registered by a single party by this point in the election cycle, according to a Washington Post analysis of Federal Election Commission records." (Washington Post)
--- But while some Republican candidates are struggling financially, President Trump's campaign operation has already brought in more than $106 million. "But the stockpiling has prompted grumbling among some Republican strategists, who contend — mostly in private — that the cash would be better allocated to the party’s at-risk congressional candidates, many of whom are being drastically outraised by their Democratic opponents," according to the New York Times.
Mueller's activity: Special counsel Robert Mueller may have been quiet publicly in recent weeks, but he has been busy behind closed doors, CNN reports. According to the network, former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort (who inked a cooperation deal with Mueller last month) has visited the special counsel's office at least nine times in the last four weeks. In addition, "Mueller's team has kept interviewing witnesses [including multiple associates of longtime Trump adviser Roger Stone], gathered a grand jury weekly to meet in Washington on most Fridays, and kicked up other still-secret court action," including two hour-long sealed court hearings.
--- According to ABC News, the special counsel's prosecutors have also been questioning Manafort about Roger Stone, his onetime lobbying partner. Mueller is reportedly investigating whether Stone communicated with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange about the release of hacked Clinton campaign emails.
Other investigations: According to CNN, Trump's former personal attorney Michael Cohen met Wednesday with "a group of state and federal law enforcement officials investigating various aspects of President Donald Trump's family business and charitable organization." The group included federal prosecutors from the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of New York, which charged Cohen in August, and officials from the New York Attorney General's office, which is also investigating the Trump Organization and Trump Foundation.
White House counsel: As the Trump administration gears up for more investigations, a new White House counsel is in place. Wednesday was Don McGahn's last day in the position, according to the New York Times, after a tumultuous tenure that ended after reports of his extensive cooperation with the Mueller probe. McGahn will be succeeded by Washington litigator Pat Cipollone, who served in the Justice Department under President George H.W. Bush.
White House schedule
POTUS: At 10am, President Trump meets with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, after his visits to Saudi Arabia and Turkey earlier this week. At 11:30am, he receives his intelligence briefing. At 2pm, he meets with the South Carolina congressional delegation.
At 3:25pm, he departs the White House for Missoula, Montana, where he arrives at 8:10pm. At 8:30pm, he holds a "Make America Great Again" rally at Minuteman Aviation Hanger in Missoula. Trump will appear with State Auditor Matt Rosendale, who is challenging Sen. Jon Tester (R-MT). The president tweeted about the race on Wednesday night, saying that Tester "looks to be in big trouble" and criticizing the Montanan's successful effort defeating Veterans Affairs Secretary nominee Ronny Jackson earlier this year.
After the rally, Trump will travel to Phoenix, Arizona, ahead of a rally there tomorrow.
VP: Vice President Mike Pence campaigns in three cities today: Denver, Colorado; Tulsa, Oklahoma; and Wichita, Kansas . At 2pm, he attends a lunch hosted by America First Action, a pro-Trump super PAC, in Denver.
He will then travel to Tulsa, where he will attend an event for Oklahoma gubernatorial nominee Kevin Stitt at 5:20pm, a Republican Governors Association (RGA) roundtable at 5:35pm, and an Oklahoma Republican Party rally at 6pm.
Finally, in Wichita, he attends an RGA roundtable at 8:35pm and speaks at an event for Kansas gubernatorial nominee Kris Kobach at 9:15pm.
Both houses of Congress are on recess.
*All times Eastern*