The snub drew outrage on the Hill. Under the terms of the Magnitsky Act — U.S. human rights legislation lawmakers had triggered shortly after Khashoggi’s killing — Trump had 120 days to respond to the request and then possibly move to impose further punitive sanctions. Anger over the killing of the Saudi citizen, a contributor to The Washington Post’s Global Opinions page, forged an unusual bipartisan consensus in Congress.
So far, the White House has doggedly refused to turn on its allies in Riyadh. It didn’t matter that the CIA’s own assessment was that the operation to abduct the dissident writer on a visit to Turkey was probably ordered by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman himself; a senior administration official released a statement arguing that the president “maintains his discretion to decline to act on congressional committee requests.”
“The non-answer is a blatant dodge that ignores the finding of the CIA and the abundant evidence behind it,” The Post’s editorial board noted in response. “It makes a mockery of the Magnitsky law, as well as of U.S. principles by covering for the crown prince to protect the cozy relations between him and President Trump, as well as Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner."
Lawmakers weren’t happy, either. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said the White House’s refusal to submit a report by the deadline “violates the law.” He added that he was “urging” the White House to act, saying, “I expect them to comply with the law.” Senators reintroduced a bill requiring sanctions for those responsible for Khashoggi’s death and brought separate new legislation that would place tough standards on a mooted nuclear deal with Riyadh.
“America should never descend to this level of moral bankruptcy,” Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) said in a statement. “Congress will not relent in its efforts to hold Saudi Arabia accountable for this heinous crime.”
At a news conference in Budapest, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo rejected Kaine’s comments. “America is not covering up for a murder,” the U.S. top diplomat said Monday, insisting that American officials were seeking “additional information” from Saudi counterparts and taking further action. The Trump administration already announced sanctions on 17 people linked to the killing, he noted, including prominent Saudi courtiers.
But as more evidence comes to light, it looks increasingly as though the White House is seeking to shield the man with the most power in Saudi Arabia: the crown prince.
This week, the New York Times reported on a 2017 conversation between the crown prince and a key aide in which he vowed to use “a bullet” to end Khashoggi’s criticism of the Saudi regime. Not long before that, a U.N. human rights expert said that Saudi Arabia had “seriously curtailed and undermined” Turkish attempts to properly investigate Khashoggi’s disappearance after entering the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul.
Key allies of the crown prince may ultimately escape serious punishment, too. According to a new report in the Wall Street Journal, one of the main ringleaders that Saudi Arabia has named in the plot, Saud al-Qahtani, has retained much of his power. Though fired from his official position in the court and included in the list of Saudi individuals subjected to sanctions by the United States, he remains an informal adviser to the crown prince and was recently spotted on a trip to the United Arab Emirates.
“For MBS, Qahtani was the backbone of his court, and [Mohammed] assured him that he will be untouched and will return when the Khashoggi case blows over,” a Saudi royal told the Journal, using the crown prince’s initials. “MBS had no intention whatsoever to let go of Qahtani."
Saudi officials are still waging a propaganda war over the killing. In a Sunday interview with CBS’s “Face the Nation,” Adel al-Jubeir, the Saudi foreign minister, described Khashoggi’s death as “tragedy” and a “mistake” but added that the “crown prince had nothing to do with this.” He then endured an awkward exchange with his interlocutor, CBS anchor Margaret Brennan, who pressed him on how it was possible that Saudi authorities had no idea where Khashoggi’s body was.
“I think this investigation is ongoing, and I would expect that eventually we will find the truth,” Jubeir finally mustered.
As readers of Today’s WorldView know, Trump has his own reasons for rallying behind the Saudi throne. His dodging of the congressional request was a sign of how White House officials “are slow-rolling” the Khashoggi affair, former State Department spokesman John Kirby said in an interview with CNN. The Saudis are vital allies in Trump’s maximum-pressure campaign on Iran — and the White House is scared of tarnishing them.
“This whole episode shows you the degree to which this administration has gone all in on Saudi Arabia,” Kirby added. “It shows you the degree to which their Middle East policy is about Iran, and they see Saudi Arabia as the biggest counterweight against Iran.”
The complexities of Trump’s anti-Iran campaign will be on display in Warsaw on Wednesday, when Pompeo will co-host a conference ostensibly on the Middle East but widely seen as an anti-Iran summit. While Israeli and prominent Gulf officials will be in attendance, some traditional European allies will not be: The foreign ministers of France and Germany chose to skip the proceedings. The Saudis, Israelis and Emiratis — “like-minded” partners insofar as they oppose Tehran — will be better represented.
Speaking to the National, an Abu Dhabi-based newspaper, a European official at the United Nations described the Trump administration’s pre-Warsaw planning as “a series of chaotic decisions being made at random.” For now, that fumbling may be the best thing protecting senior Saudis from real repercussions over Khashoggi’s killing.