White House national security adviser John Bolton on Tuesday defended his decision not to listen to the tape of journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s murder, telling reporters at the White House, “I don’t speak Arabic.”
CIA Director Gina Haspel has listened to the tape, according to U.S. officials. But others, such as Bolton and President Donald Trump himself, have not. Trump said earlier this month that there was “no reason” for him to hear the recording, which was provided by Turkey and captures Khashoggi being killed by a Saudi hit team moments after entering the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2.
Khashoggi was a prominent critic of Saudi leaders and a contributing columnist to The Washington Post.
“No, I haven’t listened to it, and I guess I should ask you, why do you think I should?” Bolton said Tuesday, turning a question back on a reporter during an appearance in the White House briefing room. “What do you think I’ll learn from it?”
He went on to ask how many in the room spoke Arabic, prompting a contentious back-and-forth.
“Do you have access to an interpreter?” the reporter asked.
“You want me to listen to it?” Bolton responded. “What am I going to learn from — I mean, if they were speaking Korean, I wouldn’t learn any more from it, either.”
Later in the briefing, another reporter again asked Bolton why he did not choose to listen to the tape with the help of an interpreter.
“People who speak Arabic have listened to the tape and they have given us the substance of what’s in it. … I’m very satisfied that we know what the tape picked up, and it was factored into the president’s decision and he’s announced his position very clearly,” Bolton said.
Members of Congress from both parties have called for the Trump administration to take a harder line against Saudi Arabia in the wake of Khashoggi’s killing, and tensions are likely to be on full display Wednesday when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis brief lawmakers on Capitol Hill.
Bolton’s remarks prompted criticism from some Democrats on Tuesday, including Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio. He noted in an appearance on CNN that Haspel, who has listened to the tape, will not be present at Wednesday’s briefing. Bolton on Tuesday dismissed reports that the White House had blocked Haspel from attending.
“This is just a bad movie,” Brown said. “You have John Bolton refusing to listen to a tape because he doesn’t speak Arabic. … He should want more information, not less.”
Brown added that a number of lawmakers will likely ask for the tape at Wednesday’s briefing. He also took aim at what he described as the Trump administration’s “arrogance,” accusing the president of “throwing in with the world’s dictators.”
“They’re the only people he doesn’t criticize,” Brown said.