United States President Donald Trump’s reluctance to impose consequences against Saudi Arabia over the disappearance of Jamal Khashoggi has fed criticism that his administration could be letting the kingdom get away with murder.
Khashoggi, a Saudi dissident who wrote for the Washington Post, hasn’t been seen since he entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2 to pick up a document for his upcoming wedding. Turkish officials have said they believe he was killed and dismembered there.
Trump said Thursday he’s disinclined to block arm sales to the Saudi government, as senators in his own party have suggested. He said there are "other things we could do" if the gruesome allegations prove true, without elaborating.
His hesitation to punish the kingdom reflects the close ties Trump’s White House has nurtured with the country’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and his administration’s acquiescence to other Saudi actions that have drawn international condemnation.
Under Trump, the U.S. has continued to back a Saudi bombing campaign against Houthi rebels in neighboring Yemen that’s killed thousands of civilians, providing American logistical support and weapons.
Even as senators push for sanctions against Saudi Arabia if the murder allegations prove true, Trump has said only that he’d take unspecified action. "He went in and it doesn’t look like he came out," the president observed in a Fox News interview.
Saudi Arabia insists Khashoggi left its consulate alive shortly after he entered. But the Washington Post reported that the Turkish government has told U.S. officials it has audio and video recordings proving he was tortured and killed inside the consulate.
It took six days after Khashoggi disappeared for Secretary of State Michael Pompeo to call for Saudi Arabia to "support a thorough investigation."
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Wednesday demanded that the administration conduct its own probe of Khashoggi’s disappearance, invoking the Global Magnitsky Act of 2016, a law initially designed to punish Russia for human rights abuses.
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The administration’s inaction has underscored the extent to which Trump has made Saudi Arabia central to his priorities in the Middle East.
Khashoggi’s disappearance also highlights the risks of the personal relationship that Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, has cultivated with Prince Mohammad.
Trump has empowered Saudi Arabia in his bid to counter Iran, bring the Palestinians into line and burnish his foreign policy credibility. That’s created a circumstance in which a repudiation of the kingdom’s rulers would also amount to a repudiation of Trump’s -- and the inexperienced Kushner’s -- approach to global affairs.
"The Saudis have had a lot of leverage with the Trump administration from the very beginning, and they have known how to get his attention and how he might react," said Karen Young, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute who focuses on the Middle East.
"They’ve known how to manage the relationship, and they treated him very much in line with royalty in his first visit and they flattered him consistently."
On that visit in May 2017 -- Trump’s first trip abroad as president -- he claimed to have secured $110 billion in sales of U.S. arms to the kingdom. On Thursday, Trump said he doesn’t want to give up that revenue to punish the Saudis.
"They’re spending $110 billion purchasing military equipment and other things," Trump told reporters.
"If we don’t sell it to them, they’ll say, 'Well, thank you very much, we’ll buy it from Russia,' or 'Thank you very much, we’ll buy it from China.'"
The Trump administration, which generally limits its public criticism of human rights violations to adversaries like Iran and Venezuela, was generally silent as the crown prince consolidated power earlier last by incarcerating fellow royals and wealthy businessmen at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Riyadh and and when the Saudi government detained prominent women’s rights advocates this year.
Bob Corker, the Tennessee Republican who heads the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said lawmakers would impose “immense pressure” on the administration to impose severe sanctions against Saudis involved in Khashoggi’s disappearance. While Prince Mohammad is “one of the brightest leaders we’ve ever dealt with," the alleged murder of a prominent journalist must be addressed, he said.
"He’s a young guy," Corker said of the 33-year-old crown prince, "and if you let him get away with killing journalists in his 30s, it’s only going to get worse, and so this has got to be nipped in the bud."
Senator Robert Menendez, the committee’s top Democrat, said that letting Saudi Arabia believe it has "carte blanche and can do anything" is dangerous. "That cannot be our message".
So far, though, Trump and his administration have mostly reserved judgment on Khashoggi. The State Department has asked the Saudi ambassador to the U.S. to gather information on the case during a visit to his home country, according to spokeswoman Heather Nauert.
The Post has reported that U.S. intelligence intercepted communications between Saudi officials discussing a plan to lure Khashoggi back to Saudi Arabia and detain him. The Post and the New York Times reported that teams of Saudi agents flew in and out of Turkey on private planes the day of the journalist’s disappearance.
Asked during a Fox News interview on Thursday whether the intercepts show that the operation "goes to the top", Trump demurred, saying only it "would be a very sad thing".
And Trump repeatedly noted without prompting that Khashoggi, a Virginia resident, wasn’t a U.S. citizen.
Administration officials haven’t even entertained symbolic gestures to signal disapproval with the Saudis.
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin isn’t canceling plans to attend a major investment conference this month in Riyadh. Goldman Sachs Group Inc. partner Dina Powell -- a former White House national security aide -- is also still scheduled to appear, as is Thomas Barrack, the longtime Trump confidant who organized his inauguration.
The New York Times, which was a media sponsor of the conference, has pulled out. CNN announced on Friday that it’s withdrawn its participation, while the Financial Times said it wouldn’t partner with the event while Khashoggi’s disappearance remains unexplained.
Bloomberg Media is among organizations also sponsoring the event and is monitoring the situation.
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Many State Department employees have privately expressed frustration with the administration’s refusal to issue a strong statement condemning Saudi Arabia or threatening severe consequences if the Saudi government is shown to be responsible for Kashoggi’s disappearance.
But Prince Mohammad may have increased confidence that Trump -- and Kushner -- will stand by him after his experience in 2017.
Then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson grew increasingly alarmed that Kushner and the crown price had engaged in secret talks over efforts to reshape the Middle East that he feared could backfire and tip the region into chaos.
Trump gave Tillerson a green light to warn the Saudis against overreaching in a feud with Qatar and in the war in Yemen.
Tillerson’s alarm only grew after he began to suspect that the crown prince and Kushner were withholding details about a Middle East peace plan that State Department officials believed could have disastrous consequences.
But the moves by the former Exxon Mobil Corp. chief only backfired. Trump dismissed Tillerson in March.
Prince Mohammad may have concluded that he can take U.S. support for granted and “that he can get away with it,” said Aaron David Miller, a former adviser at the State Department.
"My read on this is that the Saudis’ single greatest foreign policy success has been bamboozling the president," Miller said.