It happened again today. The president of the United States said something flat-out nutty, and our major news organizations treated it like normal news, slapping it into the headlines and passing it along to their readers with little more than the standard, buried “critics said” response.
Trump was telling reporters outside Marine One this morning that he had talked to King Salman of Saudi Arabia about what is almost universally presumed to be the murder of prominent Saudi journalist and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul nearly two weeks ago.
Trump said Salman “firmly denied any knowledge of it.” Then, Trump said this: “It sounded to me like maybe these could have been rogue killers. Who knows?” Here’s the full quote:
We are going to leave nothing uncovered. With that being said, 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.
A reporter asked “who else could it be besides Saudi Arabia?” Trump replied:
I don’t know. We’re going to try to getting to the bottom of it. I can only tell you that his denial to me is — just one very, you know, relatively fast phone call. Probably lasted 20 minutes. His denial to me could not have been stronger that he had no knowledge. And it sounded like he, and also the Crown Prince, had no knowledge.
The New York Times recognized the statement was a big deal, putting it in the headline of its story and the lede. But it wasn’t until the sixth paragraph that it offered any context – and even that was taking the comment seriously:
In introducing the possibility that another party could have been involved in Mr. Khashoggi’s disappearance, the president opened a window for King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to stand by their denials.
Like many other news organizations, the Times dodged any value judgment of its own, instead using this tweet from Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) as the sole indication of its absurdity.
Been hearing the ridiculous “rogue killers” theory was where the Saudis would go with this. Absolutely extaordinary they were able to enlist the President of the United States as their PR agent to float it. https://t.co/ChRFyleneR
— Chris Murphy (@ChrisMurphyCT) October 15, 2018
The Washington Post didn’t mention the rogue quote until the third paragraph of its story, but then waited eight more paragraphs to note that: “Trump floating a ‘rogue killers’ scenario prompted ridicule from Democrats in Congress.”
As many news organizations have reported, Turkish officials have identified the members of a 15-man Saudi team arriving and leaving the consulate in a black Mercedes van around the time of Khashoggi’s apparent murder. The team included a forensic expert who brought along a bone saw.
Suggesting, without any evidence, that this was a “rogue” operation is the desperate fabulation of a man who doesn’t want to acknowledge weakness by admitting anything bad about any of the authoritarian leaders he calls friends.
The Associated Press’s brief report on Trump’s comment came a bit closer to expressing the appropriate shock and skepticism, drily noting that “Trump’s language was strikingly similar to the language he has used to describe Russian President Vladimir Putin’s denials of election meddling.
And in fact the “rogue killers” hypothesis is strikingly similar to Trump’s lone hacker theory.
Talking during his first presidential debate with Hillary Clinton who hacked the Democratic National Committee, Trump famously said: “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?