“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.
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.
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.”
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.