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When Asked About Missing Journalist, Trump Cites Saudi King's Denial


President Trump made headlines the other day when he spoke of severe punishment for the suspected murder of a journalist by Saudi Arabia. But here's a question - when you listen closely, what did the president really say? His language showed this was not really a threat. He spoke of punishment if the Saudis were responsible. And by Monday, he'd leaned into the if, raising doubts about Saudi involvement and blurring the issue. NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith reports this is how the president often handles awkward news.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Standing on the South Lawn of the White House, President Trump described a conversation he had with Saudi King Salman about what happened to Khashoggi.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: 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've been rogue killers. Who knows? We're going to try getting to the bottom of it very soon, but his was a flat denial.

KEITH: In just 20 seconds, Trump hit a trifecta of phrasing and logic he comes back to frequently. First, when an ally or someone he's inclined to believe denies something, he defers to the denial.


TRUMP: I've asked, and he's firmly denied that.

Well, he denies - I mean, Roy Moore denies it.

And by the way, he gives a total denial.

I will tell you that President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today.

KEITH: That was President Trump referring to the denials of King Salman; Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore, who was accused of inappropriate sexual contact with teenage girls; and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

EMILY THORSON: Donald Trump is all of us. We all do this. I mean, I do this. You do this.

KEITH: Emily Thorson is a professor of political science at Syracuse University. She says it can be somewhat jarring coming from the president because, traditionally, American presidents have been more restrained. But with Trump, the filter is off.

THORSON: My sense is that he's relying on some stock phrases that he pulls out again and again, especially when he's called on to make a statement about an issue that perhaps he hasn't done a lot of research on or doesn't have a lot of information on.

KEITH: Which gets to the second thing Trump says regularly when confronted with potentially uncomfortable information or a difficult situation.


TRUMP: We're going to get to the bottom of it, and there will be severe punishment.

A delay is certainly acceptable. We want to get to the bottom of everything.

If Russia or anybody else is trying to interfere with our elections, I think it's a horrible thing. And I want to get to the bottom of it. And I want to make sure it will never, ever happen.

KEITH: That was Trump talking about Khashoggi's disappearance, saying he would be open to an FBI investigation into allegations against Justice Kavanaugh and responding to a question about the intelligence community's assessment that Russia interfered in the 2016 election, which leads to the third thing President Trump sometimes does - offer a theory - for instance, that rogue killers may have been involved in Khashoggi's disappearance, even though it happened in the Saudi Consulate, or that climate change will just fix itself or that the hacking of Democratic campaign emails wasn't done by Russia at all. This was Trump in a 2016 presidential debate.


TRUMP: Could also be lots of other people - it also could be somebody sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds. OK?

KEITH: These theories are almost always unsupported by fact or unverifiable. And conveniently, they're often perfectly aligned with what works best for Trump.

Tamara Keith, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF GOGO PENGUIN'S "A HUNDRED MOONS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.