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Trump declines to listen to Khashoggi tape

CNN's National Security analyst Sam Vinograd discusses President Trump's decision to decline listening to the tape from the killing of Jamal Khashoggi.

Posted: Nov 19, 2018 5:28 PM
Updated: Nov 19, 2018 5:53 PM

Every week, I offer a glimpse of the kind of intelligence assessments that are likely to come across the desk of the President of the United States. Modeled on the President's Daily Briefing, or PDB, which the director of national intelligence prepares for the President almost daily, my Presidential Weekly Briefing focuses on the topics and issues President Trump needs to know to make informed decisions.

Here's this week's briefing:

Khashoggi: Giving foreign leaders license to kill

Your response to the news that the CIA concluded that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) ordered Jamal Khashoggi's assassination makes it appear that you think your ignorance is bliss. And your statement on Sunday that you don't want to hear the tape of Khashoggi's murder only reinforces that idea. The longer you can claim ignorance about what really happened, the longer you can delay making tough decisions on whether to hold the real perpetrators of the murder accountable.

Your statements that it's too early for a final report may be assessed as misinformation. In the first instance, it's been nearly two months since Khashoggi's murder, and intelligence agencies across Turkey and the United States have had a good deal of time to assess the facts and evidence before them.

And, second, even if a final report isn't ready, an assessment with moderate or high confidence could provide the intelligence you need to make more decisions on a policy response. In fact, it already has -- you decided to sanction 17 Saudis, even without a "final" report.

Your continued public focus on Saudi Arabia's contribution to the US economy and the fact that they "give us a lot of jobs" signals that you care more about economics than human rights, and may give MBS a free pass for any role he may have played in the killing. This could greenlight similar operations down the road, because high-ranking officials -- especially those who do significant business with the United States -- won't think you'll actually punish them. You will be giving foreign leaders license to kill.

We also assess that the decision to sanction 17 individuals linked to the murder last week was viewed by many as a decision not to sanction MBS. Focusing on some of his henchmen, the sanctions were likely considered a get-out-of-jail-free card for MBS. However, we assess that because of the way that MBS governs, his minions would not logically undertake such a high-stakes assassination without him at least condoning the operation.

Israel: Less peace in the Middle East

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's governing coalition is likely crumbling. Netanyahu's political jockeying and the potential for snap elections make a peace deal even less likely in the near term. Should he survive this current crisis -- and make it through the end of his fourth term -- he'll probably try to look tougher on the Palestinians in order to safeguard his political future.

Netanyahu is facing calls to hold early elections -- including from his finance and interior ministers. He needs 61 seats in Parliament to keep his coalition's majority, and after Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman resigned on Wednesday, withdrawing his party from Netanyahu's governing coalition, he is close to losing the majority he needs to stay in power.

Lieberman resigned over opposition to the ceasefire Netanyahu signed with Hamas, calling it "surrendering to terror." He's openly called for a stronger military response to Hamas, even if it sparks wider conflict. Several others -- including the ministers of environmental protection and justice -- also opposed the ceasefire.

Education Minister Naftali Bennett, from the right-wing Jewish Home Party (the third largest party in Netanyahu's governing coalition), is demanding an appointment as the new Minister of Defense. If his wish is not granted, he could resign and topple the governing coalition because it won't have enough seats in Parliament to qualify as the majority coalition.

While Israeli security forces prepare for violent protests along Gaza's border with Israel, and possibly more rockets launched into Israel from Gaza, we should expect Netanyahu to play up the security risks of enhanced political uncertainty. He's already warning that toppling his government could lead to the formation of a leftist coalition, citing a similar shift in government in 1992, which led to the Oslo Peace Accords the following year. Netanyahu referred to the agreement -- which was intended to broker Middle East peace -- as the "Oslo disaster," and warned on Sunday that in a "period of security sensitivity, it's wrong to go to elections."

While Israeli media reported earlier this month that your son-in-law, Jared Kushner, is planning to publicly debut in the next two months his plan for peace between Israel and the Palestinians, our analysis indicates that the political turmoil in Israel makes the prospects for Kushner's plan look even dimmer in the near term. Netanyahu will want to look tough on the Palestinians, which we judge means that he will publicly and privately denounce any prospects for negotiating while he focuses on protecting his own political future.

Pence post-op: Complications abound

With less than two weeks until you see Chinese President Xi Jinping at the G-20 meeting in Argentina, Vice President Mike Pence's recent remarks on trade negotiations between the US and China -- and public unwillingness to espouse any flexibility -- will likely complicate trade negotiations.

They were probably seen as a continuation of your preferred tactic of taking on publicly strong positions as part of the US negotiating strategy. Pence's remarks indicated that you are demanding massive changes to China's political, economic and military activities. His openly confrontational statements -- including his threatening China with a Cold War scenario -- will likely complicate Xi's own approach to your meeting.

While the Chinese know that you like to threaten your negotiating partners with black-and-white scenarios, Xi will not want to be seen as responding to US threats. We assess that, if you really want to make a deal with Xi -- even if it is just to declare a tariff ceasefire -- keeping it quiet on the Western front and minimizing public threats in the run-up to the G-20 would be most helpful. Continued threats, like those issued by the Vice President, will create further negotiating complications.

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