On Monday morning, President Donald Trump said he spoke with Saudi Arabia's King Salman about Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi and left seemingly convinced that the Saudi government played no role in the reporter's disappearance in Turkey earlier this month.
What convinced Trump -- despite lots of evidence that seems to suggest the Saudi government lured Khashoggi, a critic of that government, to their embassy in Istanbul? The king denied it. Very strongly.
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"He firmly denies that," Trump told reporters before heading to Florida and Georgia to inspect damage from Hurricane Michael. "The King firmly denied any knowledge of it."
Added Trump: "It sounded to me like maybe these could have been rogue killers, who knows. We are going to try to get to the bottom of it very soon. But his was a flat denial."
Trump repeatedly suggested that the strength of Salman's denial was indicative of innocence. He did however note he was sending Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to the region to investigate.
You might recognize that language of denial from Trump. He uses it a LOT -- to defend people who he views as allies or who support his agenda.
It's the same response Trump gave when asked whether he broached the topic of Russian interference in the 2016 election during a face-to-face meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, Finland, earlier this year. "So I have great confidence in my intelligence people, but I will tell you that President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today," Trump said at a joint news conference with Putin following the summit in July.
It's the same response Trump gave when asked about the allegation of sexual assault leveled against his Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. The President repeatedly noted that Kavanaugh denied the allegations as proof positive it didn't happen, calling the allegations "one of the most unfair, unjust things to happen to a candidate for anything.
It's the same response Trump gave when multiple women said that Roy Moore had pursued relationship with them when they were teenagers and, in some circumstances, had forced himself on them. "He totally denies it," Trump said of Moore in the heat of the Alabama special election late last year "He says it didn't happen, and you have to listen to him also."
It's the same response Trump gave when the news broke that both of White House staff secretary Rob Porter's ex-wives said he had abused them. "He says he's innocent and I think you have to remember that," said Trump. "He said very strongly yesterday that he's innocent, but you'll have to talk to him about that."
That believe-the-denial approach, of course, only holds for when Trump wants or needs to believe the person doing the denying. Remember that this is a man who has accused the past administration of authorizing a wiretap on him during the 2016 campaign (despite all evidence to the contrary). A man who has suggested that a former opponent's father may have been involved in the assassination of John F. Kennedy (despite all evidence to the contrary). A man who has accused elements within his Justice Department of being part of a "deep state" conspiracy against him (despite all evidence to the contrary.)
Trump swerves between taking your word for it and absolutely refusing to take your word for it even when your word is backed up by lots and lots of evidence. His approach to allegations is entirely situational. He believes denials when it suits him -- even when it seems incredulous for him to do so. And he refuses to believe denials when it plays into some sort of broader conspiracy theory he has either hatched or is peddling.
Take the disappearance of Khashoggi. What we know is that Khashoggi entered the Saudi Embassy in Istanbul on October 2 and hasn't been seen since. A US official familiar with the intelligence surrounding the disappearance told CNN that the there are intercepts in American possession that show Saudi leaders discussing a plan to lure Khashoggi back to their country. The "working assumption" is that Khashoggi was killed in the embassy, according to a US official. Turkish authorities are set to be allowed into the embassy on Monday; CNN's Nic Robertson saw a cleaning crew entering the embassy on Monday as well.
There's every reason to believe that King Salman knows the stakes here. Trump himself promised "severe punishment" for Saudi Arabia if proof emerges that Khashoggi was murdered in the embassy. A number of high-profile international companies, amid the news of Khashoggi's disappearance, have pulled out of the Future Investment Initiative conference set for later this month.
The idea that Salman, after repeated denials, would suddenly say "OK, I did it!" to Trump in a phone call is totally fanciful. And yet, because that didn't happen, Trump seems convinced -- at least for the moment -- that it could have been "rogue killers" who, somehow, infiltrated the Saudi embassy -- without the government's knowledge! -- and committed the suspected murder.
That's a similar blueprint to how Trump responded to the increasingly clear evidence that Russia had coordinated a broadscale hacking and interference campaign designed to aid him and hurt Hillary Clinton in the 2016 campaign.
"I don't think anybody knows it was Russia that broke into the DNC," Trump said in a debate with Clinton in October 2016. "She's saying Russia, Russia, Russia, but I don't -- maybe it was. I mean, it could be Russia, but it could also be China. It could also be lots of other people. It also could be somebody sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds, OK? You don't know who broke into DNC."
In January 2017, the US intelligence community unanimously concluded that Russia sought to interfere in the 2016 election. And yet, Trump continues to offer alternative solutions. "Russia continues to say they had nothing to do with Meddling in our Election!" he tweeted in June. "Where is the DNC Server, and why didn't Shady James Comey and the now disgraced FBI agents take and closely examine it? Why isn't Hillary/Russia being looked at? So many questions, so much corruption!"
Trump believes the denials he wants to believe -- or needs to believe. Unfortunately, those denials are sometimes -- often -- rebutted by facts, and Trump seems not to pay any heed to that reality.
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