President Donald Trump’s desire to maintain strong ties to Saudi Arabia is facing its biggest test yet: allegations that Riyadh ordered the killing of a dissident Saudi journalist who had been living in the United States.
Calls are mounting for the Trump administration to find out what happened to Jamal Khashoggi. Republicans and Democrats in Congress have taken steps to force a government investigation. Khashoggi’s fiancée has pleaded for Trump to “help shed light on Jamal’s disappearance.” The fury has grown after a Washington Post report that U.S. intelligence knew of Saudi plans to abduct Khashoggi, raising questions about whether the administration failed to warn the journalist.
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The White House insists it’s taking the case seriously, with Trump vowing Wednesday to “get to the bottom of it.” But former officials and analysts, including some friendly with Khashoggi, are dismayed by what they say is a milquetoast response so far by the Trump team.
On Tuesday evening, a group of foreign policy figures attended a dinner with a senior White House official with responsibility for the Middle East. The official kept stressing that the U.S. had significant long-term interests in Saudi Arabia and repeatedly noted that Iran is a top threat, several attendees told POLITICO on condition that some of the details about the event be kept private.
When asked about Khashoggi, the official said the U.S. is still trying to get information about what happened, a statement many in the audience found absurd given that Khashoggi disappeared a week earlier and detailed reports had emerged in the media. The official said nothing about the administration being prepared to hold the Saudis accountable for what happened.
Several foreign policy specialists say the anecdote shows that the Trump administration hopes this crisis will blow over the same way other thorny dilemmas involving Saudi Arabia have in recent years. After all, the White House sees the conservative Muslim country as too important an ally in the Middle East — and in Trump’s anti-Iran strategy — to penalize, or even criticize, in any major way. It’s a hands-off approach critics say has enabled the Saudi leadership’s worst instincts.
When it comes to the mystery surrounding Khashoggi, the administration is “trying to sweep it under the rug,” said Randa Slim, an analyst with the Washington-based Middle East Institute.
Still, Slim and others warned that, if the worst proves true, the Khashoggi case could cause lasting damage to the U.S.-Saudi relationship. For one thing, there is intense anger in Congress, where many lawmakers from both parties were already increasingly uneasy over Saudi actions in places like Yemen, where a Saudi-led coalition battling Iranian-backed rebels stands accused of potential war crimes.
There’s also frustration among reporters and U.S.-based foreign policy analysts, many of whom knew Khashoggi.
For now, the case “doesn’t break the U.S.-Saudi relationship,” predicted Gregory Gause, a Saudi expert at Texas A&M University. “What it does is, it makes it even more difficult to get anything through Congress that is seen as pro-Saudi.”
It could get worse, said a D.C.-based Middle East analyst, who requested anonymity to speak frankly: “If the Saudis don’t come up with a credible answer to this, they’re done in this town.”
It’s not yet certain what happened to Khashoggi, who wrote columns for The Washington Post. But media reports have uncovered a growing mound of information indicating he was killed by Saudi operatives while he was visiting u the country’s consulate in Istanbul last week. Saudi officials deny this, saying Khashoggi left the consulate safe and sound.
The latest reports, in Turkish and international media, offer details of how Khashoggi might have been dismembered and identify specific members of a Saudi team alleged to have killed him.
The White House said Wednesday that the powerful Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, had spoken about Khashoggi the previous day with White House national security adviser John Bolton and Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner. Kushner and the crown prince, who is commonly referred to as MBS, are known to be close.
A former administration official told POLITICO that MBS had demanded the call earlier in the week after the top official at the U.S. Embassy in Riyadh asked MBS directly about the Khashoggi case. The crown prince denied any wrongdoing in his conversation with that embassy official, the former official said.
Neither the White House nor the State Department would comment on the Saudi crown prince’s demand or most other aspects of this story. But the former official said the crown prince’s insistence on talking directly to the White House indicates he is hoping to leverage his close ties with Kushner and others in Trump’s inner circle to avoid repercussions.
The Post reported Tuesday night that prior to Khashoggi’s disappearance, U.S. intelligence officials had intercepted discussions among Saudi officials about capturing him. Citing unnamed sources, the Post said the plan was to lure Khashoggi back to Saudi Arabia and grab him there.
It’s also not clear whether U.S. officials warned Khashoggi of any danger, but under standard rules, they have a “duty to warn” if a threat is credible, said Ned Price, a former CIA officer and top Obama administration official. “What we do know is Khashoggi entered the Saudi consulate,” Price said. “And the fact that he did that leads one to believe that he was not fearful of an imminent Saudi threat.”
A State Department spokesman said Wednesday the U.S. had “no advance knowledge of Jamal Khashoggi’s disappearance.”
The United States and Saudi Arabia have been close allies for decades; even after it was revealed that 15 of the 19 hijackers on 9/11 were Saudis, the relationship did not collapse. Saudi Arabia is a major oil producer and purchaser of U.S. weapons, both priorities for Trump. Saudi Arabia has also endeared itself to the Trump administration with its vocal condemnations of the Iranian regime.
In return, the Trump administration has done more than many U.S. administrations to nurture its relationship with the Saudis — the president even made Saudi Arabia the first foreign country he visited.
Just weeks ago, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo issued a certification that allowed the U.S. to keep supporting Saudi Arabia’s side in its fight against Iranian-backed rebels in Yemen, despite growing allegations that the Saudis are carelessly killing civilians in the conflict. Pompeo’s decision, which diplomats privately say was driven in part by his determination to keep up the joint U.S.-Saudi pressure on Iran, has deeply upset a growing number of lawmakers. Bipartisan efforts to restrict the U.S. role in Yemen have been gaining support on Capitol Hill.
Under the 30-something MBS, who was named crown prince in 2017, Saudi Arabia has instituted some reforms that Western leaders had hoped would lead to more social and economic freedoms for Saudis, especially women. The crown prince led the initiative to allow women to drive in Saudi Arabia, for instance.
At the same time, MBS appears highly sensitive to criticism. He has imprisoned a handful of female activists, including some who wanted the driving ban lifted. He also severely curtailed diplomatic relations with Canada after Canadian officials called for the women to be freed.
The Trump administration has been muted in its criticism of Saudi Arabia on the women’s detentions and Riyadh’s response to Canada. In contrast, the administration rarely misses an opportunity to criticize Iran for various human rights violations, including its imprisonment of dissidents.
“The question is, ‘What message has the leadership of Saudi Arabia received from the United States about what does or does not cross a line for us?’” said Jeffrey Prescott, a senior Middle East aide to former President Barack Obama, who had a tense relationship with Riyadh.
As Saudi dissidents go, Khashoggi — who long mingled with the Saudi elite — was fairly moderate, at times defending the crown prince. Many in the U.S. foreign policy community turned to him for an inside read of the kingdom. But in more recent months, Khashoggi had raised concerns about the repressive tactics used by MBS. He felt endangered enough that he decided to live in self-imposed exile in the Washington area.
In the wake of Khashoggi’s disappearance, 22 senators — including 11 Republicans — sent a letter to Trump on Wednesday, triggering a law that will force the Trump administration to investigate the situation. The law, the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, allows Congress to order an investigation into a possible extrajudicial killings or human rights violations against those exercising freedom of expression.
If the investigation finds that the Saudi government is responsible for harming Khashoggi, it could trigger sanctions against the people involved.
Sen. Bob Corker, the Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was among the signatories. He demurred when asked Wednesday if Trump had responded strongly enough to the Khashoggi case. But he noted: “There are actions that we can take unilaterally in this particular case, and for that reason there’s really not a need for me to talk to the administration.”
It’s possible the Trump administration will take some small steps on its own to chide the Saudis, said Gause, the Saudi expert. It could delay an arms shipment, for instance, or temporarily downgrade its support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen. But Gause and others said it’s unlikely the administration will impose any major, long-lasting punishment.
Statements so far from Pompeo, Vice President Mike Pence and other U.S. officials have pressed the Saudis to share their side. To some analysts, it appears the administration is trying to give the Saudis room to come up with an explanation — a rogue operative, an interrogation gone wrong or something plausible — that can be used to tone down the international anger.
If the Saudis can’t come up with a believable cover story, the outrage won’t blow over anytime soon, Gause said. Lawmakers and the foreign policy community won’t let it go, he said. Reporters, too, will likely keep digging.
“These people knew Jamal — he was a known quantity,” Gause said, noting that he himself knew Khashoggi. “He wasn’t a threat to anybody.”
Elana Schor and Martin Matishak contributed to this report.