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Saudi officials today outside the consulate in Istanbul. Photo: Bulent Kilic/AFP/Getty Images

A day after President Trump's "60 Minutes" interview, in which he said there'd be "severe punishment" if Saudi Arabia were responsible for the alleged murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, he appeared to give the Saudis an out:

"The king firmly denied any knowledge of it. ... It sounded to me like these could have been rogue killers, who knows?"
— Trump to reporters Monday

Between the lines: That a team of "rogue killers" would infiltrate the Saudi consulate and murder an opponent of the regime seems a pretty far-fetched explanation, particularly as the Washington Post has reported that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman himself sought to lure Khashoggi back to the kingdom for capture. But Trump isn't the only one who seems to be offering the Saudis a graceful way out.

As Soner Cagaptay of the Washington Institute points out, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan would need Trump's backing to confront the Saudis head on. Instead, the rogue killers "exit ramp" allows Erdogan to avoid two bad outcomes:

  • A blow to his strongman image due to an assassination inside Turkey's borders going unchallenged.
  • An economically damaging rupture with the Saudis if he does call them out.

We seem to be drifting toward the exit ramp. CNN is reporting that "the Saudis are preparing a report that will acknowledge ... Khashoggi's death was the result of an interrogation that went wrong, one that was intended to lead to his abduction from Turkey ... [but] was carried out without clearance and transparency."

The bottom line: The Saudis initially claimed that Khashoggi left the embassy unharmed. There's no reason to believe them now. But even if this is as bogus as it sounds, all three countries involved might decide a politically expedient lie is preferable to an inconvenient truth.

What to watch: Trump has dispatched Secretary of State Pompeo to Saudi Arabia.

Go deeper

Updated 34 mins ago - Politics & Policy

Gunman kills 8 people in shooting at FedEx facility in Indianapolis

A screenshot of the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department spokesperson Genae Cook during a news conference Friday morning. Photo: Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department/Facebook

A gunman opened fire at a FedEx warehouse facility in Indianapolis late Thursday, killing at least eight people and wounding multiple others, authorities said.

Details: "The alleged shooter has taken his own life here at the scene," Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department spokesperson Genae Cook said during a news conference early Friday.

Dems race to address, preempt stimulus fraud claims

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Biden officials are working to root out the systematic fraud in unemployment and Paycheck Protection Program claims that plagued the Trump administration’s efforts to boost the economy with coronavirus relief money, Gene Sperling told House committee chairmen privately this week.

Why it matters: President Biden just signed another $1.9 trillion of aid into law, with Sperling tapped to oversee its implementation. And the administration is asking Congress to approve another $2.2 trillion for the first phase of an infrastructure package.

8 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Scoop: Biden close to picking Nick Burns as China ambassador

Nicholas Burns. Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Nicholas Burns, a career diplomat, is in the final stages of vetting to serve as President Biden’s ambassador to China, people familiar with the matter tell Axios.

Why it matters: Across the administration, there's a consensus the U.S. relationship with China will be the most critical — and consequential — of Biden's presidency. From trade to Taiwan, the stakes are high. Burns could be among the first batch of diplomatic nominees announced in the coming weeks.