President Donald Trump said today that he’s still determining how the White House will respond to the disappearance of journalist Jamal Khashoggi from the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul last week, after Congress asked the administration to look into potential sanctions against Riyadh.
“We're looking for the answer, and I think probably you'll have an answer sooner than people think,” Trump said.
But Trump placed a caveat on his answer, suggesting he wasn’t willing to let Khashoggi’s disappearance get in the way of the $110 billion in future US arms sales with Saudi Arabia pledged during a 2017 visit to Riyadh, even as influential lawmakers concluded today that the exiled journalist was murdered.
“Again, this took place in Turkey, and to the best of our knowledge, Khashoggi is not a United States citizen,” Trump said, acknowledging the exiled journalist’s permanent resident status. Experts told Al-Monitor that under US law, the federal government cannot prosecute the overseas murder of green-card holders such as Khashoggi.
The Washington Post revealed Wednesday that US intelligence intercepts found that the Saudis, on the order of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, sought to lure Khashoggi from his Virginia residence and detain him. Once close to the royal family, Khashoggi sought political asylum in the United States and had become increasingly critical of Prince Mohammed.
Experts told Al-Monitor that if and when the Trump administration chooses to act, it could have a growing menu of options to punish Saudi Arabia, from minor aid cuts to sanctions that strike at the heart of the House of Saud.
“The bilateral relationship is wide and varied, and for better or for worse that provides a number of avenues,” said Rob Berschinski, a deputy assistant secretary of state during the Barack Obama administration. “The calculation that is no doubt going through the minds of policymakers is the calibration of the response.”
On Wednesday, 22 senators from both sides of the aisle sent Trump a letter that triggers a federal probe into the Khashoggi case, giving the US president 120 days to investigate possible human rights abuses and hand down far-reaching sanctions. The lawmakers noted that Khashoggi’s disappearance “suggests that he could be a victim of a gross violation of internationally recognized human rights.”
But the Global Magnitsky Act allows the US to potentially sanction any official involved in human rights abuses. That means the Trump administration could sanction officials linked with crackdowns on Saudi women’s rights protests or other abuses at the end of the investigation ordered by Congress.
“As a legal matter, there is zero requirement for them to have any nexus to the crime that the US is basing its public messaging [on],” said Berschinski, now a senior vice president at Human Rights First. “It’s not just any official in human rights abuse, it’s any official with any relation to any unit with any abuse. It’s just the widest possible aperture that you could have.”
If the White House decides against sanctions, it has other ways to name and shame Saudi Arabia. Both the Obama and Trump administrations set a precedent for expelling foreign diplomats; 60 Russian officials were kicked out for the poisoning of a former Soviet spy and his daughter that took place in Britain this year.
“The most likely response is something like what we saw in response to the [Sergei and Yulia] Skripal poisonings, where they treated diplomats as persona non grata,” said Scott Anderson, a former State Department lawyer and now a fellow with the Brookings Institution. “It seems likely Turkey will find itself in the position to do that. The US could as well.” Under international law, Anderson added, Turkish authorities likely have the ability to search the Saudi consular residence, where vans were seen heading two hours after Khashoggi arrived at the consulate.
And while Trump has tried to take any blockage of arms sales to Saudi Arabia off the table, some lawmakers are considering alternatives. Senate Foreign Relations ranking member Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., has already put a hold on sales of precision-guided munitions to Riyadh and the United Arab Emirates over worries of mounting civilian casualties in the Yemen air war.
After Secretary of State Mike Pompeo certified in September that the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen had made a “good faith” effort to reduce noncombatant deaths, it appears unlikely to limit in-air refueling of coalition jets to put leverage on Riyadh.
But Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., who represents Khashoggi’s home district, told Al-Monitor he’s also considering measures to cut US military training that Saudi Arabia needs to fly its fighter jets or drive its tanks. Participation in the International Military Education and Training program also makes the beneficiaries eligible for discounts on other military training programs.
“As things advance technologically, that training is pretty specialized,” Connolly said. “Not just anyone can go in the cockpit of an F-35 and fly off into the sunset.”
Julian Pecquet contributed to this report