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Saudi ambassador returns to Washington for the first time since killing of journalist

The Saudi ambassador to the United States, Prince Khalid bin Salman, seen on Capitol Hill in July 2017, has returned to Washington.
The Saudi ambassador to the United States, Prince Khalid bin Salman, seen on Capitol Hill in July 2017, has returned to Washington. (Andrew Harnik/AP)
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Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the United States, Prince Khalid bin Salman, has returned to Washington for the first time since the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi Embassy spokeswoman said Wednesday.

The return of Khalid, the younger brother of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, came as dignitaries gathered in Washington for the funeral of former president George H.W. Bush.

It was not clear whether Khalid, whom some have accused of aiding a coverup of Khashoggi’s killing, would resume his duties as the kingdom’s ambassador in Washington.

A Saudi official had said the prince planned to attend Bush’s funeral, but the embassy spokeswoman said Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir would be “representing the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.”

The Bush family wanted the state funeral to focus on the life and legacy of the 41st president, though Bush cultivated strong and lasting ties with the Saudi leadership over decades of public service.

“The U.S.-Saudi relationship had its finest hour under Bush. It’s no surprise that the Saudis want to remember the good old days,” said Bruce Riedel, a former CIA official and a Saudi Arabia expert at the Brookings Institution.

Khashoggi was a critic of the Saudi government and a Washington Post contributing columnist.

“Given the acute crisis in U.S.-Saudi relations, Riyadh urgently needs a capable ambassador in Washington, but not one so tainted with the Khashoggi murder and coverup,” Riedel said.

Khalid abruptly left Washington in October as U.S. officials and lawmakers called on the kingdom to straighten out its shifting explanations of Khashoggi’s death. Saudi authorities had first claimed that Khashoggi walked out of the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul after his Oct. 2 visit. They then said he died in a confrontation that escalated into a fistfight, then later admitted that he was killed by Saudi agents who flew to Istanbul from Riyadh for the purpose.

As the shifting accounts fell apart under scrutiny, Khalid drew the ire of top Republicans, who accused him of lying to them about various details during briefings, including why Saudi officials could not produce security camera footage showing Khashoggi leaving the consulate. Security camera footage did show Khashoggi entering the consulate.

Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was particularly incensed when the Saudi ambassador told him that the video was not available because the surveillance equipment only live-streamed content and did not record it.

“I’ve never, ever heard of a security system like that,” Corker told a reporter in October. “That was pretty hard for me to believe. And I shared that with him. And he said, ‘Well, it was malfunctioning and it was only live-streaming.’ And so to me it feels very much like some nefarious activity has occurred by them.”

Besides playing a key role in publicly dismissing allegations against Saudi Arabia, questions have also emerged about Khalid’s actions before Khashoggi was killed.

Last month, the Wall Street Journal reported that in text messages over a period of months, Khalid had assured Khashoggi that he would be safe visiting the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. Khalid has denied playing a role in luring Khashoggi to the consulate, however, and has described him as a “friend.”

More than a month and a half has passed since lawmakers first expressed outrage over the Saudis’ denials, and Riyadh may view the diplomatic crisis as waning.

“The return of Prince Khalid suggests that Riyadh thinks the crisis is over,” said Simon Henderson, a Saudi Arabia expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “Congress probably has a different view.”

On Tuesday, lawmakers expressed particular exasperation after CIA Director Gina Haspel provided them with evidence that they say links the crown prince to the killing.

“It is zero chance, zero, that this happened in such an organized fashion without the crown prince,” said Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.).

Saudi Arabia denies that the crown prince was involved.

On Wednesday, Corker and Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) sent a letter to President Trump demanding that his administration make a determination “specifically addressing” whether the crown prince is responsible for Khashoggi’s killing for the purposes of imposing new sanctions.

“We expect to receive your determination within 120 days of our original request,” the senators said.

Khalid’s return to Washington was first reported by NBC News.

Karen DeYoung, Missy Ryan and Souad Mekhennet contributed to this report.