Trump flip-flopping over Jamal Khashoggi’s disappearance

US president takes phone call from King Salman and appears to accept Saudi denials

US president Donald Trump and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman al-Saud in Riyadh in May 2017. On Monday Trump suggested to reporters that ‘rogue killers’ could be responsible for Jamal Khashoggi’s disappearance – giving a potential out to the Saudi regime. File photograph: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

US president Donald Trump and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman al-Saud in Riyadh in May 2017. On Monday Trump suggested to reporters that ‘rogue killers’ could be responsible for Jamal Khashoggi’s disappearance – giving a potential out to the Saudi regime. File photograph: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

 

“Jamal and I had many dreams, but the most important one was to build a home together.”

So wrote Hatice Cengiz, the fiancee of missing Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, in an article in Monday’s New York Times.  

Khashoggi’s engagement to the Turkish doctoral student was ostensibly the reason he visited the Saudi consulate in Istanbul two weeks ago – he had an appointment to finalise paperwork relating to their marriage. The veteran commentator has not been seen since.

While Khashoggi’s disappearance is a crippling personal loss for Cengiz, it also threatens to undermine the close relationship between Washington and Riyadh that has developed under the Trump administration, in part at the instigation of president Donald Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner.

The story has been gathering steam in the United States since the Washington Post carried a blank space where Khashoggi’s regular column was supposed to appear on October 4th.

Even amidst the relentless news cycle that has become a hallmark of Donald Trump’s presidency, the story of the missing Saudi journalist stuck. By the end of last week it was becoming clear that Trump had to comment on the matter.

Asked to do so by reporters travelling with him to Ohio last Thursday, the US president said it was a “very serious thing”, but he added that questionable human rights records were overlooked in many countries.

Stern rebuke

Since then, he has flip-flopped on his response to the disappearance. In an interview with CBS’s 60 Minutes show, he warned of “severe punishment” if Saudi Arabia was found to be involved in Khashoggi’s disappearance. His comments prompted a stern rebuke from the kingdom, which vowed to retaliate with “greater action” if the US administration sought to punish it.

But in the same interview Trump played down expectations that he would halt a $110 billion (€95 billion) arms deal with the Saudis. “I don’t want to hurt jobs. I don’t want to lose an order like that,” he said, referring to last year’s promise by Riyadh to buy billions of dollars worth of military equipment, adding that “there are other ways of punishing”.

Several times over the past few days Trump has cited the fact that Khashoggi is not a US citizen, suggesting that the US has limited responsibility for the missing man, who was a resident of the United States.

While Trump may prefer to look away and hope the Khashoggi storm will pass, Congress has other ideas

On Monday Trump suggested to reporters that “rogue killers” could be responsible for Khashoggi’s disappearance – giving a potential out to the Saudi regime, which has vehemently denied any involvement with the disappearance, a position reiterated by King Salman during a 20-minute phone call with the US president on Monday.

Trump’s equivocation on the issue has given fuel to his critics, who have consistently highlighted the US president’s apparent willingness to engage with autocratic regimes with poor human rights records such as Saudi Arabia, Russia and the Philippines.

Improbable theory

His comments on Monday that the Saudis “deny any knowledge” of the disappearance and his apparent acceptance of the improbable theory that “rogue killers” could be to blame have echoes of his approach to Russian president Vladimir Putin, when he took at face value Putin’s denial of electoral interference despite the findings of his own intelligence services.

As a steady stream of prominent business leaders and companies pulled out of a high-level investment conference in Riyadh scheduled for next week, it remained unclear on Monday night if US treasury secretary Steve Mnuchin would attend as planned.

While Trump may prefer to look away and hope the Khashoggi storm will pass, Congress has other ideas.

As with Russia, Trump again appears to be at odds with Congress about the culpability of the Saudi regime. While the president seemed to be open to the theory that the regime was not involved in the disappearance, members of Congress from both sides of the political divide said last week that they believe the Saudi government is involved after viewing intelligence.

Republican senator Marco Rubio is among those calling for a tough response by the US. Speaking on Sunday he said that punitive measures – including the halting of arms sales – should be considered. He also warned that Congress would act, even if the president didn’t.

“If this is proven to be true, there is going to be a response from Congress,” he said. “It’s going to be nearly unanimous, it’s going to be swift, and it’s going to go pretty far.”

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