The US initially stayed relatively quiet — but pressure for a more robust response is increasing as lawmakers called for a probe into the 59-year-old’s fate.
A combination of Trump’s world view and his Middle East ambitions have meant the White House has been loath to criticize Saudi Arabia or Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the kingdom’s 33-year-old de facto ruler.
Trump has made clear that his administration will not make human rights overseas a priority; he and especially his son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner maintain close ties to the crown prince; and Trump has long had business ties to Saudi Arabia, where he made his first foreign trip as President.
More crucially, Trump has established a trio of goals in the Middle East that depend on Saudi Arabia’s rulers and their money. The kingdom is central to the Trump administration’s goals on Middle East peace, its effort to fight ISIS in Syria and elsewhere, and its foreign policy priority of countering Iran.
That combination of factors explains low key US responses following aggressive Saudi foreign policy moves and the muted response to Khashoggi’s suspected assassination. They also create a dilemma for the White House, as lawmakers moved Wednesday to force a showdown over US values in foreign policy by triggering a human rights probe that could lead to sanctions.
“For this administration, getting into an issue like this is absolutely the worst-case scenario,” said Gerald Feierstein, a former ambassador to Yemen who now heads the Gulf Affairs Program at the Middle East Institute. “I’m sure they’re all wishing it would all go away. But the reaction in Washington is so strong, they probably can’t get away from that, so you’ll see increasingly strong statements from the administration. … I think that they see they have no choice but to respond to this.”
Khashoggi’s disappearance also raises questions about whether recent US policy toward the Saudis has emboldened them.
“If the Saudis kidnapped or killed Jamal Kashoggi, that’s on them,” said Aaron David Miller, Middle East Program director at the Wilson Center. “There’s no direct causality, but the question remains, to what degree the Trump administration’s acquiescence to the Saudis emboldened the Saudi leadership to think it can do what it likes, both in repressing dissent at home and pursuing policies abroad that frankly in my judgment … have been undermining US national interests.”
The State Department initially issued a terse statement about the Saudi journalist, saying they were “closely following the situation” and then later called on Saudi leaders to conduct a “thorough” and “transparent” investigation.
Almost a week later Khashoggi’s disappearance, Trump weighed in, in answer to a question.
“I am concerned about it. I don’t like hearing about it,” he said. “And hopefully that will sort itself out.”
In a Fox News interview late Wednesday night, Trump said “it’s a terrible thing” of the possibility the Saudis are behind Khashoggi’s disappearance.
“I would not be happy at all. I guess you would have to say so it’s looking a little bit like that. We’re going to have to see. We are doing a lot of work on it. It would certainly not be a good thing at all,” he said.
He added, “we will get to the bottom of it. I do hate to commit to what recourse we would take. It’s too early.”
Some officials came out more forcefully, including Vice President Mike Pence, reflecting what administration officials tell CNN is a growing concern about the crown prince’s possible overreach at home and abroad, and its implications for the region.
On Wednesday, Trump followed up with a more urgent expression of concern. “It’s a very bad situation and we’re going to get to the bottom of it,” he said.
Analysts who watch the US-Saudi relationship closely are skeptical.
“I am very cynical that Donald Trump is going to care about the human rights of a Saudi journalist,” said Bruce Riedel, director of the Brookings Intelligence Project. “He is not going to take action.”
The Trump administration is relying on Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies in the fight against ISIS, and is pushing them to fund reconstruction efforts in Syria.
The White House effort to forge a Mideast peace between Israelis and Palestinians, led in part by Kushner, also depends on Saudi Arabia. In what the White House has called an “outside in” strategy, the administration is looking primarily to the Saudis and their Gulf allies to take the lead in convincing the Palestinians to cooperate, to incentivize Israeli through the promise of diplomatic recognition and to fund reconstruction and development in Palestinian areas.
Above all, the administration has been looking to Saudi Arabia for support in its main priority of containing and confronting Iran. “The Saudis are key to that,” said Miller of the Wilson Center.
Sen. Bob Corker, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, acknowledged the conflicting interests in remarks to reporters Wednesday. “It complicates a lot of things doesn’t it, I mean you’ve got Jared and others here working on a Middle East plan. … It could affect multiple things that we’re working with them on that are very important,” Corker said. “But you can’t go around killing journalists.”
UK foreign secretary, Jeremy Hunt, has explicitly tied the importance of human rights to alliances, tweeting on Tuesday that if media reports about Khashoggi “prove correct, we will treat the incident seriously – friendships depend on shared values.”
But Trump has clearly signaled that the US will not push human rights, telling Saudis on his May 2017 visit that “we are not here to lecture.”
He picked up that theme in his address to the UN last month, telling gathered leaders that, “I honor the right of every nation in this room to pursue its own customs, beliefs, and traditions. The United States will not tell you how to live or work or worship. We only ask that you honor our sovereignty in return.”
The bipartisan push for a Global Magnitsky investigation into Khashoggi’s disappearance will force Trump to deal with the issue of human rights. “Congress is very stirred up,” said Riedel of Brookings.
The law could require sanctions against Saudi Arabia. Other steps could include suspending arms sales and downgrading diplomatic ties. “Right now, I don’t think we’re prepared to do that unless Congress tries to force the administration’s hand because there is incontrovertible evidence that the Saudis kidnapped and or killed Jamal Khashoggi,” Riedel added.
Many lawmakers have denounced Saudi Arabia or called for action against the kingdom in the past two years, as its leaders have taken increasingly aggressive steps at home and abroad.
The crown prince has arrested Saudi clerics, bloggers, journalists and activists, with at least one woman who campaigns for female rights facing the death penalty. He had dozens of prominent Saudis who he saw as rivals, including many princes, detained at the Ritz Carlton, where some were allegedly tortured.
Overseas, the crown prince effectively detained the Lebanese prime minister in November, has prosecuted a war in Yemen that has resulted in starvation and mass civilian casualties and has pursued a boycott against Qatar that has split the Gulf Cooperation Council, a US regional ally.
“This is not the first administration to have enabled the Saudis and given them wide berth, it’s just that you have a senior Saudi leadership that has been uncharacteristically risk-ready and frankly reckless,” Miller said, “and who somehow believes that they have a sort of immunity as a consequence of their relationship with the United States.”
CNN’s Aishvarya Kavi, Jeremy Herb and Liz Landers contributed reporting.