Even as top Republican senators indicated on Thursday afternoon that the United States may consider a wide array of diplomatic responses if reports prove true that the Saudi Arabian regime was responsible for the disappearance and suspected killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, President Donald Trump ruled out the idea of curtailing arms deals with the country, some of which are already being blocked in Congress.
“I would not be in favor of stopping a country from spending $110 billion, which is an all-time record, and letting Russia have that money and letting China have that money,” Trump said, referring to a deal inked in May 2017, when he visited Saudi Arabia to kick off his first presidential trip abroad. “What good does that do us? There are other things we can do,” Trump added.
“First, I want to find out what happened, and we’re looking,” he said.
Khashoggi, missing for more than a week, is a prominent Saudi journalist, an outspoken critic of the regime’s authoritarian policies, a U.S. resident, and a columnist for the Washington Post. He was last seen on October 2, entering the Saudi consulate general in Istanbul, Turkey, where he had gone to pick up documents for his upcoming wedding. Turkish investigators say Khashoggi was killed in the consulate. Turkish officials have challenged the Saudis, who deny the allegations, to put up evidence that the journalist left the building unharmed.
Also on Thursday, the Washington Post reported that the Turkish government has told U.S. intelligence officials that it is in possession of gruesome audio and video recordings that confirm their assessment that Khashoggi was murdered inside the building.
“Let me just put it this way: Saudi Arabia needs to clear this up immediately. . . Obviously there's a way that this could end very badly, and that is if Saudi indeed is responsible for this,” said Colorado Senator Cory Gardner. “Arms sales are certainly going to be a huge concern if there is responsibility that is irrefutable.” Senate Foreign Relations Committee ranking member Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) has used a procedural tool since June to place a hold on proposed arms sales to the country, and committee chairman Bob Corker suggested on Thursday that congressional opposition to such deals may only increase in the coming days.
“If it’s found that they murdered a journalist, that will hugely change our relationship. I mean, there’s no question about it. It’s already been on a downward trend for some time, whether it’s the Yemen issue or just the general sense of entitlement or the way they’ve been approaching Congress for the last year and a half,” the retiring Tennessee Republican told reporters.
Corker has repeatedly said that U.S. intelligence seems to confirm the initial findings of Turkish officials. “I hope we find him alive, but everything points to the fact that this was something that was thought out and done and that he’s not alive anymore,” Corker reiterated Thursday.
Corker and his colleagues on the Foreign Relations Committee sent a letter on Wednesday asking the White House to investigate the matter and to slap sanctions on individuals found responsible. Under the 2016 Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, Trump has just under 120 days to reach conclusions about whether any Saudi officials, including de facto Saudi leader Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (often referred to simply as MBS), should face retaliation. “Most of us look at MBS as one of the brightest leaders we've ever dealt with in the Middle East,” Corker said, but “he's a young guy and if you let him get away with killing journalists in his 30s, it's only gonna get worse. And so this has got to be nipped in the bud.”
The White House has not responded to the letter yet, Corker said, but the administration “will be under immense pressure—immense pressure—if it’s determined that Saudi Arabia was involved, to sanction very severely the people who’ve been involved in this.”
State Department Spokeswoman Heather Nauert emphasized in a press conference on Thursday that the facts of the matter remain unclear. “It’s something that’s really important to keep in perspective. As we have said from the beginning, we are not certain what happened to Jamal Khashoggi. . . . We are all concerned about his whereabouts.
“We don’t have any information on his whereabouts right now or what happened to him,” she told reporters. “We are going to hold back on our comments until we have concrete information that the U.S. government can share.”