The body of evidence is now virtually incontrovertible — except to President Trump — that the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi was ordered at the highest level of the Saudi government. The only remaining questions are whether our own government is able to face facts and what it intends to do in response to the killing in Turkey’s capital of a man who was a legal resident of Virginia.
The CIA has concluded that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman personally ordered the slaying of the Saudi national — denials by the Saudi government notwithstanding. That assessment was based in large part on audio recordings from inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul provided by the Turkish government.
Faced with mounting evidence of the crown prince’s culpability, Trump responded with a shameful statement on Tuesday. The president of the United States actually said: “It could very well be that the crown prince had knowledge of this tragic event — maybe he did and maybe he didn’t!” His words, widely criticized by foreign policy veterans, amounted to a wink and a nod to Saudi Arabia or other brutal regimes, and signalled to the world that the Trump administration would find some pretext to look the other way from their crimes. He went out of his way to mention Saudi purchases of American arms, as if to proclaim that American foreign policy can be bought. And his “maybe he did and maybe he didn’t” shrug undermined the analysis by his own intelligence community.
According to that analysis, a call was placed by a member of the hit squad flown in to do the deed directly reporting to a senior aide to Mohammed that their murderous mission had been accomplished. US intelligence is also aware of a call made to Khashoggi by Khalid bin Salman, brother to the crown prince, encouraging Khashoggi to go to the consulate to obtain the documents needed for his upcoming wedding. Khalid is also the Saudi ambassador to the United States.
Barring an unexpected discovery of presidential spine, it seems likely that Congress will need to intervene. A bipartisan group of senators are backing legislation calling for sanctions on the Saudi regime, including a blanket prohibition on the sale of any arms that could be used for offensive purposes — aircraft, tanks, armored vehicles, bombs, munitions. (The legislation would exempt purely defensive systems.)
Congress has already invoked the Global Magnitsky Act , which required Trump to decide within 120 days which individuals should be sanctioned for their roles in Khashoggi’s murder. In response, the Trump administration finally announced sanctions on 17 people. That, of course, only happened after the sanctions bill was filed. But as Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky put it, “putting sanctions on people who are in prison” — the Saudis have already arrested 11 of their own — is a pretty weak response.
The Senate legislation also addresses the ongoing human rights crisis of the war in Yemen, which pits a Saudi-led coalition against the Houthi rebels, supported by Iran. It proposes immediate sanctions on any force that tries to prevent the delivery of humanitarian aid to Yemeni civilians.
And the bill would set the stage for any future relationship with the Saudis by requiring two reports by the US administration — one on Saudi Arabia’s continuing human rights abuses, and a second on the situation in Yemen.
There are no “rogue operations” in Saudi Arabia. It is absurd to imagine that anything that happens involving the kingdom would happen without the knowledge and approval of Mohammed himself. And since the president has shown he can’t or won’t stand up to the crown prince, Congress must.