WASHINGTON — Oct 12, 2018, 10:22 AM ET

Journalist's disappearance tests Trump's close Saudi ties

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Sword dancers. Gleaming palaces. Military jets streaming red, white and blue trails.

President Donald Trump soaked up the grandeur of Saudi Arabia on his first foreign stop as president last year and envisioned huge benefits for the United States in building closer ties with the repressive and oil-rich desert kingdom.

Now, the White House relationship with Riyadh is imperiled over the mysterious disappearance of a Saudi writer, and the situation is creating friction between the Trump administration and members of Congress demanding to know if the columnist for The Washington Post was killed inside the Saudi consulate in Turkey.

Trump said he has talked to officials at the highest level of the kingdom and is "demanding everything" to explain how Jamal Khashoggi, an activist who had been critical of Saudi leaders, vanished after he walked into the consulate in Istanbul to get documents he needed to get married.

Turkish authorities claim Khashoggi, who resided in the United States, was killed by members of an elite Saudi "assassination squad." The kingdom describes the allegation as "baseless." But if Saudi Arabia is found to be complicit in his disappearance or death, the warm U.S.-Saudi relationship — and even hopes for Middle East peace — could be upended.

A senior administration official said Friday that the U.S. is in ongoing contact with Turkish and Saudi officials about the case. The U.S. believes it is essential that Turkish authorities — with full, transparent support from the Saudi government — are able to conduct a thorough investigation and officially release the results, the official said.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the official was not authorized to speak publicly, said the U.S. supports Turkish investigators' efforts, will not prejudge the outcome of the official investigation, but stands ready to assist.

Trump said Thursday the U.S. had "investigators over there and we're working with Turkey" and Saudi Arabia. But he has provided no details.

Trump has backed Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's ambitious campaign to modernize the conservative kingdom and its economy. Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who exchanges phone and text messages with the young crown prince, was instrumental in last year's deal to sell $110 billion in U.S. weapons to the kingdom.

But even before Khashoggi vanished, concerns were mounting in Congress over Saudi Arabia's policies and the crown prince's aggressive steps to silence his critics. And now there are calls on Capitol Hill for the U.S. to halt arms sales to the kingdom, and Khashoggi's disappearance could galvanize more opposition from lawmakers and pressure Trump to rethink his relations with Saudi Arabia.

Trump on Thursday pronounced U.S. relations with Saudi Arabia "excellent" and said he doesn't want to scuttle arms deals with Riyadh because it means tens of millions of dollars pouring into the U.S. economy. He said the kingdom would simply buy the weapons from Russia or China instead.

"If it turns out to be as bad as it might be, there are certainly other ways of handling this situation," he said without elaborating.

Much of how the U.S. responds will depend on whether evidence surfaces that proves Saudi Arabia is responsible for Khashoggi's death.

Trump will have to craft a "calibrated response," said Jon Alterman, who directs the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "He doesn't like that approach. The president likes complete wins."

The close ties between the Trump White House and the kingdom were in part forged by a friendship between two young princes: Last spring, Kushner and the crown prince met formally for the first time as a late-season snow fell outside the White House.

The two men — both in their 30s, both trusted aides of older, familial leaders — struck a bond. As their countries' chief negotiators on Israeli-Palestinian peace, Kushner and the Saudi prince were both looking to make a name for themselves on the world stage and consulted with each other frequently over the following months.

Kushner championed Crown Prince Mohammed to the president and senior foreign policy officials, some of whom expressed wariness at the embrace of MBS, as he is known in diplomatic circles.

The two men's relationship also played a key role in Riyadh becoming the unlikely first stop on Trump's maiden international trip in May 2017. Trump, despite endorsing a travel ban on Muslims during his campaign, became the first U.S. president to make his official first trip to an Islamic nation.

Relations between the two countries are complex because they are entwined on energy, military, economic and intelligence issues. The Trump administration has aggressively courted the Saudis for support of its Middle East agenda to counter Iranian influence, fight extremism and forge peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

"We want to have a relationship with Saudi Arabia. They're a strategic partner. They're a mortal enemy of the Iranians. They're helping us on terrorism," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a Trump supporter and top member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

"Having said all that, if this did happen — and it's increasingly likely that something bad happened to this man at the hands of the Saudi government — that shows contempt for us. That's disrespectful to us. It puts people like me in a box who've been one of the leading champions of the relationship."

It's not just Graham who's in a box. It's also Trump, who has long-standing business ties to Saudi Arabia.

Jeff Prescott, who was senior director for the Middle East at the National Security Council during the Obama administration, said that a reassessment of the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia is overdue and that Trump should raise U.S. complaints with Saudi leaders.

"What the Trump administration has given Saudi Arabia is a green light to pursue any policy," said Prescott, now executive director of National Security Action, a group of former officials opposed to the Trump administration. "The key question is whether Republicans will have the courage to force the administration to have a reckoning of the relationship."

He said Kushner's project to forge peace between Israel and the Palestinians also could be in jeopardy.

"There is no question that a rift with Saudi Arabia — or even relations strained by pressure from Congress — would make an already bleak prospect even less likely," Prescott said.

In Congress, there is a push for sanctions under a human rights law, and lawmakers are questioning American support for the Saudi-led bombing campaign against Iranian-backed rebels in Yemen. The U.S. has raised concerns previously about heavy civilian casualties caused by the Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen.

Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., voiced doubt there would be support in Congress for another arms sale to Saudi Arabia — though lawmakers haven't blocked sales before. He also called for at least a temporary halt in U.S. military support for the Saudi bombing campaign in Yemen. Murphy tweeted that if Saudi Arabia is found complicit in Khashoggi's death, it should be viewed as a "fundamental break in our relationship with Saudi Arabia."

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Lemire reported from New York.

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  • Weazerdogg

    Pretty pathetic. The media and business both have more integrity than the loser in the White House. Deplorables should be banned from a voting booth for the next 10 years. Punishment for being blazing idiots!!

  • Life's a River

    Donald Trump Jr tweeted about how Khashoggi was tied to "Jihadists", so you can tell that's how the Trump administration will try to paint this. Reading Norm's remark below just confirms that. Basically trying to justify political assassinations. Just like his mentor, Vlad Putin, who routinely has his enemies assassinated. The Trump administration is gradually morphing into the Putin regime.

  • Norm Stansfield

    You are painting a false picture. Khashoggi wasn't an impartial, innocent journalist looking to promote democracy and freedom in Saudi Arabia. He was an Islamist militant, he was in Saudi Intelligence (which is why he was killed: they consider him a traitor), and he was a supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood (which is an anti-American militant group aligned with Iran...you might be aware that Iran and Saudi Arabia are engaged in a clandestine war).

    Instead of getting outraged over the "death of a journalist", the leftist media should review its standards when it comes to working with so called "journalists" who take sides in sectarian wars in the Middle East. Especially when the side they take is the anti-American one. Or could it be that that's why he was such a media darling?

  • rosaliecesar

    I bet the Saudis are going to offer billions to Turkey in order to buy these audio and video recordings of how this poor journalist was tortured and murdered inside the Saudi Arabia Consultate.
    The despicable part is also that US Intelligence could have warned Jamal Khashoggi his life was in danger and he should go back quickly to the US.Why did they let this happened if they knew about the Saudis'plans to harm him?

  • Joe Leggio

    Trump is directly implicated as an accessory before and after this event.

    Trump failed to warn Khashoggi, he failed to warn off Saudi Arabia from taking rash actions against Khashoggi.

    Trump failed to obey Executive Order 12333 and the specific guidelines he was advised of that are known
    as directive 191 require him as the Commander in Chief to warn possible targets of harm, kidnapping, torture or murder that our intelligence service may learn of, regardless of their citizenship. All human beings qualify.

    The President lied to the American people about being unaware of any problem. He lied about the dependence of American jobs and $110B being at stake in weapons sales in exchange for him not takingany action about Khashoggi.

    Trump lied to Khashoggi's fiance. And, Trump is also an accessory after the fact to murdering and torturing Khashoggi.

    All this is recorded online via Khashoggi's iWatch link up to the iCloud audio outside of Saudi Arabia's reach.
    Trump is implicated in a murder, torture, kidnapping and dismemberment crime. He is a monstrous, lying thug mafia traitor and he should be impeached, indicted, and imprisoned. The same goes for his son-in-law
    and son of a felon Kushner.

    Trump is a pathological liar, but that doesn't make him an especially good or convincing liar except to goobers and morons who desperately want to believe him. Really all Trump was trying to do was justify Khashoggi's murder as 'worth $110B in jobs to us. This too is a lie.

  • kritikosman

    Trump'll go into suck up mode by and by.

  • Diane

    This man knew he was a target and unfortunately it caught up with him. I don't know what anyone expects President Trump to do but ask questions. It's terrible what happened but when you leave the United States you are taking a chance, especially if you are making enemies.

  • MarcoDoc

    Trump will do nothing about the Saudis murdering a US permanent resident he has millions invested in the country

  • Eteamer

    I stand corrected by my son. It wasn't an Apple watch it was a Sam sung gear with video. I guess you don't need a phone for it to stream to the cloud. Nobody checks for those watches.

  • Carswell

    One source is cited by the Washington Post saying men can be heard beating Mr Khashoggi; it adds that the recordings show he was killed and dismembered.

  • CaptnBlynd

    Blame Trump? For decades of close relations relying on oil? For national dependence brought on by American politicians practicing global politics instead of Nationalism?
    "Trump gets money from them!" Trump gets nothing compared to the Clinton Foundation. Now all of a sudden he is bought by Russia AND Saudi Arabia?
    There seems to be an inability by many to recognize reality. Our dependence on Saudi is decades old. I would love for this to lead to a break in relations but you will scream about the higher prices at the fuel pump. "Trump must punish them and stop dealing with them but gas prices had better not go up." That is a delusion.

  • BIAB

    Trump won’t do anything about it.

  • Joe Leggio

    Journalist's disappearance tests Trump's close Saudi ties? More like "exposes Trump's close Saudi ties!"

    Trump is a tramp who comes cheap, pay to play all the way. Mohammed bin Salman openly brags that he's got the Trumps in his pocket. He owns Kushner by bailing out Kush's failure 666 Fifth Ave.

    How does Trump's name translate into Russian? "Tramp" That's no lie, "Tramp" - cue the Otis Redding music.

  • Rodney Bayburn

    This critic of the royal family (and Washington Post reporter) was lured to the Saudi consulate so he could mget papers allowing him to marry the woman he loved. The Saudi King had him lured there, tortured, and killed. Disgusting. And trump will do nothing because he has hotels there. This president is weak, feckless, totally amoral, and withou a shred of American honor.

  • Joe Leggio

    Trump was notified immediately by our intelligence gathering agencies that Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Salam planned to abduct, torture and kill Khashoggi. Trump decided illegally to vestpocket (sit on) that information. Under Executive Order 12333 & Intelligence Community Directive 191 he was REQUIRED to share information with Khashoggi regardless of Khashoggi's residence status. The Directive is explicit on this. Trump LIES. What's new. Well, Trump is clearly complicit as an accessory before and after the fact to abetting a kidnapping and possibly a murder, once the body (Habeus Corpus) is produce, or evidence of it (DNA traces in bone shards, etc.).

  • Tony C

    I don't think it's proper for any US Govt official other than Trump to make any accusations or suggest penalties until there is a response from the Crown Prince himself. Then analyze whether there's fact and truth or is it a sham response. Wait and See.....................

  • cephalo

    This is a major blunder. It should cost MBS his position or else this will harm Saudi foreign relations for a very long time. Time for a new prince.

  • bugzzz

    So you've got one corrupt autocracy (Turkey) investigating another corrupt autocracy (Saudi) and then reporting back to an aspiring dictator (POTUS). I'm sure the truth will come out. By which I mean it will never be known.

  • MichaelAndrewsUSA

    I am certain that someone in the Trump family, maybe even the Don himself, and most likely that disgusting Jared, had an idea that this was going to happen.