As shocking evidence mounted that a US-based columnist for The Washington Post was tortured, dismembered, and decapitated by Saudis working for Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, it was a different kind of shock to see Secretary of State Mike Pompeo grinning broadly alongside the prince in Riyadh, celebrating the Saudis’ pledge to investigate themselves.
Back in Washington, President Trump confidently parroted the Saudis’ denials: Hey, it could have been “rogue killers” committing the murder of Jamal Khashoggi inside a heavily guarded Saudi consulate, Trump argued implausibly, and why let the grisly murder of a US resident get in the way of lucrative arms sales?
The Trump administration’s eagerness to whitewash an ally’s apparent extrajudicial killing of a critic is appalling but not surprising. This is the same president who praised brutal despots who oppress and execute dissidents — Vladimir Putin of Russia, Kim Jong Un of North Korea, Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, and Xi Jinping of China, to name a few. What makes this different is what may be irrefutable evidence of a horror committed against a US resident: US intelligence intercepts that the crown prince ordered Khashoggi’s interrogation and kidnapping back to Saudi Arabia and Turkish authorities’ recordings in the Istanbul consulate of Khashoggi screaming as his fingers were cut off, and a forensic doctor advising others to listen to music while he dismembers the body with a bone saw.
Trump has said weapons sales to Saudi are too valuable for “jobs, jobs, jobs’’ and that the Saudis could buy arms from Russia or China instead. Both are untrue. When a $110 billion arms deal was announced last year, Lockheed Martin said it would employ 450 workers in Saudi Arabia, without enumerating jobs at home. Holding up arms deals would create leverage; the Saudis are locked into US weapons systems and can’t just turn on a dime.
The apparent murder of Khashoggi, a former royal insider who became a critic of the crown prince’s crackdown on women activists, journalists, and other dissidents, presents the biggest challenge to Saudi relations since the 9/11 attacks, in which 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudis. A congressional probe cited “incontrovertible evidence” that some had contact with and support from Saudi officials and royals. Washington and Riyadh somehow smoothed over relations based on interdependence with the largest exporter of petroleum and a fulcrum of Mideast power.
Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner hitched his wagon early to MBS, as the crown prince is known, as a partner against Iran and terrorism. There were early signs of overreach; MBS ordered dozens of Saudi business and royal elites imprisoned at a Ritz-Carlton, shaken down for payments without judicial process. He ordered dissidents jailed and snatched from overseas. Yet he was feted by Hollywood dealmakers, Internet tycoons, and Washington thought leaders, celebrated as an economic reformer who let women drive cars.
Now Turkey — which ironically suppresses its own dissidents — has made public that it has gruesome evidence of premeditated murder, naming suspects with close links to MBS, including a doctor who specializes in mobile autopsies. Recordings and relentless pressure from The Washington Post may be too much for US elites who have been cozy with Saudi. Congress has triggered the Global Magnitsky Act, which set a 120-day clock to investigate suspected human rights violations and can lead to sanctions.
Trump ally Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina and one of the kingdom’s biggest defenders, angrily rejected the Saudi denials that Trump repeated. “Nothing happens in Saudi Arabia without MBS knowing it,” Graham said, vowing never to return there till the prince is out. “He had this guy murdered in the consulate in Turkey and you expect me to ignore it?”
Washington lobbyists and Hollywood agents have suspended deals with the Saudis. Top executives from JP Morgan Chase, Blackrock, Blackstone, MasterCard, Ford, and the head of the International Monetary Fund have pulled out of a Saudi investment conference next week, as did media sponsors and executives. Tone deaf to shifting politics and mute in moral leadership, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin was still scheduled to attend Wednesday.
This is Trump’s first foreign policy crisis that can’t be ignored or “resolved by a cruise missile or a tweet,” said Aaron David Miller, vice president of the Wilson Center. Whether Trump demands a genuine investigation or helps his Saudi friends bury an apparent horror will be one of the most telling and consequential acts of his presidency.
Indira A. R. Lakshmanan’s column from Washington appears regularly in the Globe. She is the executive editor at the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.