Remember Jamal Khashoggi?
Saudi Arabia really hopes you don’t and the Trump administration would prefer it if you didn’t remember him either, if it’s all the same to you.
Unfortunately for the monarchy in Riyadh and for the “good” folks at 1600 Penn., the world is still asking what steps the U.S. is going to take to punish Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for the extrajudicial killing that took place in the Kingdom’s Istanbul consulate on October 2, when a 15-man Saudi hit team strangled Khashoggi to death, dismembered him with a bone saw, stuffed his body parts into five suitcases and then (maybe) dissolved the remains in acid at Saudi Consul General Mohammed al-Otaibi’s house.
On Thursday, Al Jazeera appeared to confirm rumors that the body was in fact dissolved, prompting the following sad Twitter message from Khashoggi’s fiancée Hatice Cengiz:
I'm unable to express my sorrow to learn about dissolving your body Jamal! They killed you and chopped up your body, depriving me and your family of conducting your funeral prayer and burying you in Madinah as wished.
Are these killers and those behind it human beings?
Oh my God! pic.twitter.com/U5OKS5DkVb
— Hatice Cengiz / خديجة (@mercan_resifi) November 8, 2018
Late last month, in her first televised interview since Khashoggi’s death, Cengiz said she had declined a White House invitation from Donald Trump, calling it a ploy to curry favor with the American public.
Trump has repeatedly suggested that there is virtually no scenario under which he would consider canceling a $110 billion arms deal with the Saudis as punishment for bin Salman’s likely role in the plot. It probably didn’t hurt the Crown Prince’s cause that the Saudis literally wired the U.S. $100 million on the very day Mike Pompeo embarked on what was ostensibly a fact-finding mission to Riyadh late last month. Predictably, that trip turned into a farcical photo op that found Trump’s Secretary of State posing for smiling pictures with the accused royals.
On Capitol Hill, lawmakers have pressed Trump hard on the issue. A little over a week after Khashoggi’s disappearance, 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.
With the clock ticking, Trump is reportedly set to take a number of steps designed to quell the backlash and placate those demanding accountability from the Kingdom.
“The Trump administration is preparing to end air refueling flights for the Saudi Arabian military campaign in Yemen and impose sanctions against Saudis linked to the killing of Jamal Khashoggi,” The New York Times reports, citing current and former American officials.
The Times goes on to say that any economic sanctions could be imposed under the above-mentioned Global Magnitsky Act and look like an effort to “prove” that Mike Pompeo was serious when he pledged (last month) that the revocation of visas for those involved in the killing “will not be the last word on the matter from the United States.”
The “last word”, it would appear, will involve something from Steve Mnuchin, who reportedly discussed the issue at an internal Treasury Department meeting on Thursday. “A Treasury employee in the room said that Mnuchin lamented the horrible nature of the killing and suggested that some action was likely to be taken in the next week”, the Times writes.
As far as ending the air refueling flights, the administration is pitching that as unrelated, although clearly, the Khashoggi killing rekindled criticism that the U.S. is contributing to the humanitarian crisis in Yemen by assisting the Saudis militarily.
Riyadh effectively ignored calls for a cease fire this month, an act of defiance that reportedly irritated some U.S. officials. As the Times goes on to detail, some lawmakers have had it:
On Friday, Senator Todd Young, Republican of Indiana, and Senator Jeanne Shaheen, Democrat of New Hampshire, called for an end to the air refueling mission.
“If the administration does not take immediate steps, including ending U.S. refueling of Saudi coalition aircraft, we are prepared to take additional action when the Senate comes back into session,” the senators said in a statement.
You can be absolutely sure that whatever Trump agrees to do here will be discussed with the Saudis ahead of time. Additionally, it’s nearly certain that any action this President takes against the Saudis will be designed to blunt the push for something more substantial from Congress. That is, Trump is likely going to try to argue that the steps he’s about to take are sufficient and the matter can be considered settled.
The wild card, as ever, is Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who isn’t going to be satisfied with any half measures.
On Friday, former Saudi spy chief Prince Turki Al-Faisal claimed the Kingdom will under no circumstances acquiesce to an international investigation of Khashoggi’s death.