President Donald Trump is giving the Saudis an escape hatch over journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s disappearance.
“It sounded to me like maybe these could have been rogue killers,” Trump told reporters at the White House this morning. “Who knows? We’re going to try getting to the bottom of it very soon.”
The US president has repeatedly stressed that King Salman bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud “firmly denies” Turkish allegations that Saudi intelligence forces murdered Khashoggi at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. Trump has also underscored that Khashoggi is not a US citizen, even though he lived in the United States under temporary asylum.
Why it matters: Trump said during a Sunday CBS interview that there would be “severe punishment” for Riyadh if the Saudi royal court was found to be responsible for his disappearance, prompting Saudi threats of retaliation. Should the Saudis blame “rogue killers” for Khashoggi’s likely death, Trump now has room to back off from his threats to punish a close US ally he has leaned on extensively for everything from his hard-line Iran policy to his yet-to-be-unveiled Israeli-Palestinian peace plan.
But Congress has other ideas: Congress isn’t giving itself the same room to maneuver. Several members, including Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tenn., took the unusual step last week of telling reporters that US intelligence assessments corroborate Turkish allegations placing the blame on Riyadh. Corker and his Democratic counterpart, Bob Menendez, D-N.J., used their authority under the Global Magnitsky Act to force Trump to launch a federal probe into Khashoggi’s disappearance. Bipartisan leadership on the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Friday also reinforced the Senate’s calls for a probe. But it would be up to Trump to implement sanctions should the probe implicate Saudi officials.
Lawmakers are less united on cutting off arms sales to Saudi Arabia. But even previously pro-Saudi lawmakers such as Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., have said they’re open to it. Trump, meanwhile, opposes cutting off arms sales, citing Saudi investment in the US defense industry.
What’s next: Trump has dispatched Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to Saudi Arabia — and possibly Turkey — to discuss the matter. Pompeo and national security adviser John Bolton have also given Saudi Ambassador Khalid bin Salman until Tuesday to return to Washington with answers. As the Turks prepare to search the Saudi Consulate today — right after a cleaning crew was seen entering and leaving the premises — it remains to be seen whether Riyadh will opt to run with Trump’s “rogue killers” narrative.
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