As gruesome details of Jamal Khashoggi’s alleged killing and dismemberment at the hands of Saudi operatives trickled into the public domain this week, calls sounded in capitals around the globe for immediate retaliation to the apparent human rights atrocity.
But President Trump has remained dogged about the bottom line.
In days of private phone calls and Oval Office huddles, Trump has repeatedly reached for reasons to protect the U.S.-Saudi relationship, according to administration officials and presidential advisers.
Trump has stressed Saudi Arabia’s huge investment in U.S. weaponry and worries it could instead purchase arms from China or Russia. He has fretted about the oil-rich desert kingdom cutting off its supply of petroleum to the United States. He has warned against losing a key partner countering Iran’s influence in the Middle East. He has argued that even if the United States tried to isolate the Saudis, the kingdom is too wealthy to ever be truly isolated.
And he has emphasized that although Khashoggi had been living in Virginia and wrote for The Washington Post, the dissident journalist is a Saudi citizen — the implication being that the disappearance is not necessarily the United States’ problem.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo flew home to Washington on Wednesday after hearing Saudi denials in Riyadh and Turkish accusations in Ankara that Khashoggi was killed by Saudi agents. Trump’s top diplomat received a firsthand briefing from Turkish authorities, but did not listen to the audio recording that Turkish officials say offers a ghastly rendering of Khashoggi’s killing and proves he was murdered inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul.
Pompeo also did not offer reporters traveling with him any deeper clarity into how the Trump administration would address the conflicting accounts, but suggested that any possible U.S. response would weigh its “important relations” with Saudi Arabia.
Trump said his administration has asked for an audio recording “if it exists,” expressing doubt about the evidence. U.S. intelligence officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive matters, said they had no reason to doubt that Turkey has an audio recording that shows what officials claim. But the lack of a review by U.S. analysts makes it difficult for the administration to offer an independent assessment about who may be responsible for Khashoggi’s murder, the officials said.
Meanwhile, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) said the administration had “clamped down” on sharing intelligence about the Khashoggi case. He said an intelligence briefing scheduled for Tuesday was canceled and he was told no additional intelligence would be shared with the Senate for now, a move he called “disappointing.”
“I can only surmise that probably the intel is not painting a pretty picture as it relates to Saudi Arabia,” Corker said.
Based on the earlier intelligence he had reviewed, he added, “everything points not to just Saudi Arabia, but to MBS,” referring to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. “This could not have happened without his approval.”
For a president known to act on his impulses, the Khashoggi episode has brought a two-week cycle of delay and deterrence.
Trump has repeatedly insisted on an unhurried response and largely has followed the cautious counsel of Pompeo, now one of the president’s most trusted confidants. A senior White House official said that Trump dispatching Pompeo to Saudi Arabia showed how seriously he is taking the issue.
National security adviser John Bolton and, to a lesser extent, senior adviser Jared Kushner, also have helped shape Trump’s Saudi strategy. Kushner, who has cultivated a close relationship with the crown prince, has emphasized internally the importance of Saudi Arabia to prospects for Middle East peace, officials said.
The hesitation and friendly engagement with the Saudis has underscored Trump’s view of American power: a transactional approach that prioritizes geopolitics and economic interests over human rights and democracy.
Explaining the administration’s position, former House speaker Newt Gingrich said, “People would like to see something done because it’s horrific. But it’s not bad enough to make the Iranians happy and screw up the global economy. Who is going to put this high enough on the list of priorities that it suddenly overwhelms everything else that is going on?”
After a Monday call with King Salman, Trump first floated the idea that “rogue killers” may have somehow broken into the Saudi Consulate and murdered Khashoggi. And after Pompeo was photographed Tuesday morning smiling with Saudi monarchs in one of Riyadh’s ornate palaces, Trump went so far as to cast the royals as victims of a global push to make them culpable.
“Here we go again with, you know, you’re guilty until proven innocent. I don’t like that,” Trump told the Associated Press on Tuesday, invoking a comparison with sexual-assault allegations against Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh.
Marc Short, who was the legislative affairs director in Trump’s White House until departing this summer, said, “Saudi Arabia has created a real problem for itself.”
“Our condemnation should be unequivocal,” Short said. But he said the relationship is complicated, as it has been for previous administrations. “I think he’s more concerned about the strategic alliance than anything else,” he said of Trump.
A chorus of lawmakers, including some prominent Republicans, argued this week for more forceful action.
“Just because a country we’re working with did it doesn’t mean the U.S. can just shrug its shoulder and say, well, nothing happened here,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said Tuesday on CNN. He added, “Human rights is worth blowing that up, and luring someone into a consulate where they’re thereby murdered, dismembered and disposed of is a big deal.”
The Senate could enact sanctions against Saudi Arabia even if Trump objects, just as it did last year in passing sanctions against Russia with a veto-proof 98-to-2 vote.
“If [the Saudis] try to stonewall what happened or provide excuses that simply aren’t credible, this isn’t just up to the president to decide,” said Leon Panetta, who served as defense secretary and CIA director in the Obama administration. “I think the Congress will step forward and take steps that will in fact damage the relationship.”
Trump has long viewed his relationship with the Saudis through the prism of money. He regularly boasts of the Saudis’ commitment to buy $110 billion in U.S. arms, though that figure is misleading because it includes agreements reached by the Obama administration as well as sales that may not materialize for many years, if ever.
At a recent fundraiser at the Trump International Hotel in Washington for the Protect the House committee, Trump complimented Riyadh on being pretty and claimed the Saudis had spent $50 million cleaning the city for his arrival. He also complained about how much the United States spends to support Saudi Arabia, according to an attendee who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
“Ah, those schmucks,” the attendee recalled Trump saying, noting that he elicited laughter from the audience.
Back in August, Trump told a group of chief executives at a dinner at his golf course in Bedminster, N.J., that he had told Saudi officials — he called them his “friends in the Gulf” — that the United States was protecting them and therefore should not have to pay such high prices for oil, according to someone in attendance who spoke on the condition of anonymity. Trump singled out oil baron Harold Hamm for his opinion, and Hamm said the oil supply needed to grow for prices to drop, the attendee said.
Dan Eberhart, an oil executive and prominent GOP donor who did not attend either gathering, said that while some lawmakers are demanding that the administration enact sanctions against Saudi Arabia, Trump is fixated on keeping oil prices down and therefore hesitant to act.
“The U.S. is counting on Saudi Arabia to make up for the drop in Iranian production and cover for the Venezuela situation,” Eberhart said. “The Saudis may not be in the mood for either if the U.S. cancels arms sales or initiates sanctions.”
Trump’s personal financial ties to Saudi Arabia are coming under scrutiny as well. The president falsely claimed in a tweet Tuesday that he has “no financial interests in Saudi Arabia,” even though his real estate business has sold properties to wealthy Saudis, and Saudi visitors have stayed at his hotels while he has been president.
A group of Democratic senators on Wednesday called for a full disclosure of Trump-Saudi transactions and for freezing all business during the Khashoggi investigation.
With pressure mounting to punish Riyadh, the president is exercising an uncharacteristic amount of caution. And for Trump, the Saudi arms purchases are top of mind.
“The president is trying to introduce a little calm into this, to wait and see who’s directly responsible,” said Rudolph W. Giuliani, the president’s private attorney. “While he makes clear he doesn’t approve of what has happened, it’s complicated because this isn’t a pure enemy he’s dealing with, like if Iran did it. . . . He sees those contracts out there with Saudi Arabia as not just money, but jobs.”
Giuliani said that Trump is not naive about Mohammed’s authoritarian moves to consolidate power inside his kingdom, recalling that the president privately expressed concern about the crown prince’s methods after he jailed a number of critics and royal family members last November.
“I know the bloom is off the rose with the crown prince,” Giuliani said. “The president way back then started to have a more complex view of him.”
In floating the notion of “rogue killers” and defending Saudi monarchs this week, Trump broke with key U.S. allies who have been united in emphasizing grave concerns about the missing journalist and calling on the Saudi regime to provide clear answers.
“European leaders were clear in their joint call for journalistic freedom, a credible investigation and accountability for any wrongdoing,” said Amanda Sloat, a Europe scholar at the Brookings Institution. “In stark contrast, the American president chose to parrot Saudi denials and pitch an unsubstantiated and improbable explanation.”
Trump’s openness to accepting a rogue-killing theory threatens to solidify suspicions that the president would accept far-flung conspiracy theories if they prove convenient.
“Europeans see President Trump as willing to brazenly bend the truth to accomplish his objectives, without any sense of shame or fear of discovery,” said Jeremy Shapiro, research director at the European Council on Foreign Relations.
Gingrich said Trump is trying to find a balance.
“Trump is good enough reading this to know you can’t have people going around the planet cutting people up,” he said. “But the U.S. almost certainly won’t go through self-flagellation like some in Congress want us to because it’s not in our self-interest.”
Shane Harris, John Hudson and Carol D. Leonnig contributed to this report.