A bipartisan group of lawmakers on Capitol Hill is all set to force Donald Trump to investigate the disappearance of Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi.
Khashoggi’s story is quickly becoming the talk of the geopolitical world. On Wednesday, Turkish media released CCTV evidence to support the contention that Khashoggi was likely killed by a 15-man hit squad dispatched to Istanbul by Mohammed bin Salman.
According to sources who spoke to the New York Times, the Saudi agents who participated in the operation brought along a “bone saw” to dismember Khashoggi. One of the men who arrived in Istanbul last week aboard one of the two Gulfstream IVs flying out of Riyadh was said to be an “autopsy expert”.
Shortly after the footage shown in the linked post above was released, Reuters reported that Khashoggi was wearing an Apple watch that was connected to the phone he left outside the consulate with his fiancée. That watch, Turkish officials say, could provide clues to what happened to him once he entered the Saudi outpost.
Reuters also notes that “Khashoggi had friends in high places [in Turkey], including some of President Tayyip Erdogan’s advisers”. Turkey of course sided with Qatar during last year’s Saudi-led embargo and relations between Erdogan and bin Salman were already some semblance of frosty.
On the list of people you don’t want to cross in this world, Erdogan is right up there with bin Salman, which means the Crown Prince is likely headed for a confrontation with Turkey’s favorite autocrat who bows to no man, royal or otherwise.
Now, as more details of Khashoggi’s likely murder come to light, pressure is mounting on world leaders to turn the diplomatic screws on Riyadh.
On Wednesday, a group of Senators sent a letter to Trump invoking the Global Magnitsky Act of 2016. Here’s the gist of it:
The recent disappearance of Saudi journalist and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi suggests that he could be a victim of a gross violation of internationally recognized human rights. Our expectation is that in making your determination you will consider any relevant information, including with respect to the highest ranking officials in the government of Saudi Arabia.
The clock is now ticking. Trump has 120 days to respond to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Asked by reporters about the situation on Wednesday, Trump said he’s expecting a letter Khashoggi’s fiancée. Here’s the clip, which features the President adopting his trademark, arms-crossed, back-and-forth rock in the course of parrying questions about the Saudis:
During the same exchange with the press, Trump said this about whether he’s demanding answers from Riyadh:
Yes, we are. We are demanding everything.
You’d be forgiven for doubting that assessment. On Tuesday evening, the Washington Post reported that “U.S. intelligence intercepted communications of Saudi officials discussing a plan to capture Khashoggi” prior to his disappearance.
On Wednesday evening, the Post is back with more. To wit:
The crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman, ordered an operation to lure Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi back to Saudi Arabia from his home in Virginia and then detain him, according to U.S. intelligence intercepts of Saudi officials discussing the plan.
The intelligence about Saudi Arabia’s earlier plans to detain Khashoggi have raised questions about whether the Trump administration should have warned the journalist that he might be in danger.
Intelligence agencies have a “duty to warn” people who might be kidnapped, seriously injured or killed, according to a directive signed in 2015. The obligation applies regardless of whether the person is a U.S. citizen. Khashoggi was a U.S. resident.
The bottom line here, as we suggested on Wednesday morning, is that the White House likely knew about this ahead of time and failed to warn Khashoggi in the interest of not offending bin Salman. It certainly seems like at least some Senators suspect the same.
Needless to say, Trump will not be enthusiastic about pressing the Saudis for answers. The prospect of sanctioning Riyadh seems far-fetched in the extreme given the relationship the administration has been keen on cultivating with the Crown Prince.
But ultimately, Trump may have no choice. Remember, he let a similar deadline expire with regard to sanctions on Russia in connection with the Skripal poisoning, but was ultimately forced to relent.
Don’t forget that on Tuesday, during his presser with Nikki Haley, Trump said he “knows nothing” about Khashoggi:
My guess is we’re all going to find out that’s a lie.