By James Hohmann With Breanne Deppisch and Joanie Greve
October 11, 2018 "Information Clearing House" - After headlining a campaign rally in Pennsylvania last night, President Trump phoned in live to Fox News during the 11 p.m. hour to discuss his response to Hurricane Michael. Then host Shannon Bream asked what he’ll do if he becomes convinced Saudi Arabia is responsible for the death or disappearance of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.
“Well, it's a terrible thing and it certainly would not be a positive,” the president said. “I would not be happy at all. I guess you would have to say, so far, it's looking a little bit like that. We’re going to have to see.”
Trump suggested that he would oppose any push from Capitol Hill to restrict future arms sales to the longtime U.S. ally on the grounds it could cost Americans their jobs. “Well, I think that would be hurting us,” he told Fox. “We have jobs. We have a lot of things happening in this country. … Part of that is what we are doing with our defense systems and everybody is wanting them and, frankly, I think that would be a very, very tough pill to swallow for our country. … And, you know, they are always quick to jump that way.”
The president finished his answer by hedging, saying he wants to gather all the facts first. “The very talented people are involved. And we will get to the bottom of it,” Trump said. “I do hate to commit to what recourse we’d take … It's just too early.”
-- The exchange underscored the difficult balancing act facing Trump, as he struggles to navigate the fraught geopolitics of the Middle East while appearing responsive to growing bipartisan outrage about the possible murder of a 59-year-old dissident who has been living in Virginia on the eve of his planned wedding. Saudi Arabia is the largest oil exporter in the world, the biggest buyer of American weapons and the main counterweight to Iran. The Trump administration has built its entire strategy for the region, including a bid for peace between Israel and the Palestinians, around fostering close ties with the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman. The president’s first foreign trip even took him to Saudi Arabia, where he announced $110 billion in arms sales.
-- Trump’s wait-and-see comments came hours after my colleague Shane Harris reported that the crown prince, widely referred to as MBS, had ordered an operation to lure Khashoggi to Saudi Arabia and detain him. The story is based on U.S. intercepts of Saudi officials discussing the plan: “The intelligence, described by U.S. officials familiar with it, is another piece of evidence implicating the Saudi regime in Khashoggi’s disappearance last week after he entered the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. Turkish officials say that a Saudi security team lay in wait for the journalist and killed him.
“Several of Khashoggi’s friends said that over the past four months, senior Saudi officials close to the crown prince had called Khashoggi to offer him protection, and even a high-level job working for the government, if he returned to his home country. Khashoggi, however, was skeptical of the offers. He told one friend that the Saudi government would never make good on its promises not to harm him.
“The intelligence … has fueled speculation by officials and analysts in multiple countries that what transpired at the consulate was a backup plan to capture Khashoggi that may have gone wrong. A former U.S. intelligence official … noted that the details of the operation, which involved sending two teams totaling 15 men, in two private aircraft arriving and departing Turkey at different times, bore the hallmarks of a ‘rendition,’ in which someone is extra-legally removed from one country and deposited for interrogation in another. But Turkish officials have concluded that whatever the intent of the operation, Khashoggi was killed inside the consulate.
“The intelligence poses a political problem for the Trump administration because it implicates Mohammed, who is particularly close to Jared Kushner, President Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser. … Kushner’s relationship with Mohammed … has long been the subject of suspicion by some American intelligence officials. Kushner and Mohammed have had private, one-on-one phone calls that were not always set up through normal channels so the conversations could be memorialized and Kushner could be properly briefed. … On Wednesday, Kushner and national security adviser John Bolton spoke by phone with the crown prince, but White House officials said the Saudis provided little information.”
-- Meanwhile, Turkish officials publicly accuse the Saudis of not cooperating with their investigation. Loveday Morris and Souad Mekhennet report from Istanbul: “Turkey has put in a request to enter the consulate, where Khashoggi was last seen Oct. 2 as he stepped through the compound’s front gate to obtain papers for his wedding. However, despite Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s offer to Bloomberg News for the Turkish government to search the premises, Saudi Arabia is delaying and does not want an investigative team to enter, one senior Turkish official said. … The Turkish newspaper Sabah published the identities of the 15 men suspected of being involved. Three Turkish officials confirmed that the list was accurate.”
-- The Wall Street Journal reports that the two Gulfstream jets used to ferry the 15 men into and out of Istanbul belong to a company controlled by Saudi Arabia’s crown prince.
-- NBC News obtained screenshots that show Khashoggi checked his cellphone just before entering the Saudi consulate, but he never read messages sent to him minutes later. Josh Lederman reports: “The screenshots of WhatsApp messages sent to Khashoggi by a friend in the U.S. corroborate the timeline of his disappearance, providing further evidence that he did not leave the consulate, as Saudi Arabia's government has claimed.”
-- The Saudi-U.S. relationship has weathered storms before, including the revelation that 15 of the 19 hijackers on 9/11 were Saudis. The Trump administration has already stood by the crown prince amid outcry from the international community over a war in Yemen that has killed thousands of civilians, Karen DeYoung notes: “Trump (also) initially supported the Saudis and the United Arab Emirates last year when they broke relations with neighboring Qatar, charging support for terrorism, only to reverse himself months later after objections from Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.”
-- Politico reports that it was actually MBS himself who asked for the call with Kushner and Bolton after the top U.S. official at the embassy in Riyadh asked him directly about the case earlier in the week. A former administration official said the crown prince’s insistence on talking directly to the White House indicates that he hopes to leverage his close ties with Kushner to avoid repercussions.
“On Tuesday evening, a group of foreign policy figures attended a dinner with a senior White House official with responsibility for the Middle East. … The official kept stressing that the U.S. had significant long-term interests in Saudi Arabia and repeatedly noted that Iran is a top threat,” Nahal Toosi reports. “When asked about Khashoggi, the official said the U.S. is still trying to get information about what happened, a statement many in the audience found absurd given that Khashoggi disappeared a week earlier and detailed reports had emerged in the media. The official said nothing about the administration being prepared to hold the Saudis accountable for what happened. Several foreign policy specialists say the anecdote shows that the Trump administration hopes this crisis will blow over … [T]he administration is ‘trying to sweep it under the rug,’ said Randa Slim, an analyst with the Washington-based Middle East Institute.”
-- But Congress seems more motivated to act now than before. The Republican chairman and ranking Democrat of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee moved Wednesday to force Trump’s hand on sanctions. “In a letter to Trump, the lawmakers triggered the 2016 Global Magnitsky Act, which gives the president 120 days to decide whether to impose sanctions on any foreign person he determines sponsored or was involved in the disappearance of Khashoggi,” Karoun Demirjian reports. “Congressional critics of the Yemen campaign have never mounted enough support in Congress to curtail arms sales to Saudi Arabia, though (Bob) Corker temporarily blocked them last year and (Bob) Menendez continues to keep a planned sale of precision-guided munitions on hold.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who has emerged as a key Trump ally on the Hill and chairs the Appropriations subcommittee on foreign operations, promised there will be “hell to pay” if the Saudis killed Khashoggi. “I’ve never been more disturbed than I am right now,” he told reporters. “It would be a bipartisan tsunami if this is proven to be true.”
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) called for cutting off Saudi military aid until Khashoggi is returned alive. “This oppressive regime must be held accountable for its actions,” he writes in an op-ed for The Atlantic. “The United States has no business supporting it, either directly or indirectly.”
-- One imminent test for the administration: “Saudi Arabia’s muscle will be on display next week, when American technology and financial titans gather at the investor conference in Riyadh that the crown prince will attend,” Mark Landler, Edward Wong and Eric Schmitt report in the New York Times. “Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin will represent the Trump administration at the meeting, which participants have called ‘Davos in the Desert’ and is held at the same Ritz-Carlton hotel where Prince Mohammed jailed dozens of wealthy Saudis in what he said was an anticorruption campaign. Among the prominent figures scheduled to take part are Jamie Dimon, the chief executive of JPMorgan Chase; Stephen A. Schwarzman, the chief executive of the Blackstone Group; and Dara Khosrowshahi, the chief executive of Uber.
“Two other scheduled attendees have ties to Mr. Trump: Thomas J. Barrack Jr., a financier who is a friend of the president’s; and Dina H. Powell, a Goldman Sachs executive and former deputy national security adviser who worked closely with Mr. Kushner on Saudi Arabia and is a leading candidate to replace Nikki R. Haley as ambassador to the United Nations.
“The Treasury Department said Mr. Mnuchin was still planning to attend. A person working with American business executives said that if proof emerged that Saudi Arabia ordered Mr. Khashoggi’s killing, at least some would cancel.”
-- Several major U.S. media outlets — including Bloomberg News, CNBC, Fox Business Network and CNN — are still listed as “media partners” for this conference. Erik Wemple reports: “New York Times spokeswoman Danielle Rhoades Ha says the Times is no longer a media sponsor of the Future Investment Initiative. A spokesperson for Fox Business Network [said] that the organization is evaluating the matter. A CNBC spokesman says they are ‘monitoring the situation.’ A CNN rep says the network is evaluating the circumstances. We are awaiting replies from the others.”
-- Saudi Arabia is facing mounting pressure in other areas: Former Barack Obama energy secretary Ernest Moniz told Axios that he’s suspending his involvement advising Saudi Arabia on a proposed $500 billion megaproject. Several other technology and business leaders who were involved in the project, which entailed building a city of the future, also distanced themselves when BuzzFeed reached out.
-- Protesters held a vigil last night outside the Saudi Embassy in Washington. Marissa Lang reports: “They offered memories of the columnist and prayers for his family and fiancee. They demanded answers from the Saudi government — and action from the Trump administration. ‘When the Saudis commit acts of violence, it has always been with a wink and a nod from the United States,’ said Medea Benjamin, co-director of Code Pink, which organized Wednesday’s protest. ‘This did not start with Donald Trump. They have been emboldened for years, and it has been a bipartisan problem.’ … Standing beneath the golden sabers and green trees of the Saudi coat of arms, protesters held photographs of Khashoggi and signs denouncing the monarchy. One man, dressed in a long white thobe, wore the face of bin Salman over his own. His hands, held up for effect, were dripping fake blood.”
-- The bigger picture: Critics fault Trump’s hands-off response to autocrat abuses. Anne Gearan notes that authoritarians are acting emboldened around the world. “In China, the head of Interpol was abducted and imprisoned by authorities in Beijing while his wife was reportedly threatened with death back home in France. … [Trump] has praised … Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin as partners, dropped his previous criticism of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s human rights violations and has spoken approvingly of the harsh law enforcement tactics employed by Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte. … In the case of Saudi Arabia, both Republican and Democratic administrations have been accused of coddling the nation with the world’s largest oil reserves. But Trump’s apparent willingness to look the other way … may have emboldened the kingdom to think that Trump would ignore a move against Khashoggi, human rights advocates and others said.”
-- Six takes from today’s WaPo opinion page:
- The Post’s Editorial Board: “If the crown prince’s government does not immediately explain what happened to Mr. Khashoggi, and punish those responsible, it must be punished with sanctions — by Congress, if Mr. Trump cannot bring himself to act.”
- Elliott Abrams, a former adviser to George W. Bush on Middle East policy: “Last year, most of the discussions about Saudi Arabia in which I participated questioned only whether the crown prince’s terrific reform program could really succeed. His highly successful two-week visit to the United States this year deepened the enthusiasm. The alleged killing of Khashoggi is a death blow to all those hopes and expectations, unless the Saudis can somehow explain what happened and accept full responsibility.”
- Richard Cohen: “The silence of the Trump administration is bad enough. What’s worse is the language the president has used regarding the press. … From Riyadh to Moscow, they get the message from Trump: Journalists are scum.”
- Brian Klaas: “This harrowing saga has two main dimensions: Saudi brutality, certainly, but it also underscores the ways in which [Trump’s] fawning dictator worship, his pervasive conflicts of interest and his attacks on the media have emboldened authoritarian regimes to viciously silence their critics.”
- Christian Caryl: “What is striking about all of these horrors is the shamelessness of the perpetrators. Evil has always existed (and always will), but rarely have the bigots, the thugs and the warmongers so brazenly advertised their sins.”
- Max Boot: “Trump said he is in ‘love’ with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, one of the worst human-rights violators on the planet, and had little to say when Saudi Arabia was accused of murdering and dismembering [Khashoggi]. The only people he thinks are ‘evil’ are Kavanaugh critics. So forgive me if I don’t recant my #NeverTrumpism. In fact, every day, and in nearly every way, Trump confirms my initial judgment that he is unfit to be president.”
-- The Daily Beast reports that Khashoggi had been working in recent months to launch a pro-democracy advocacy group focused on boosting democracy and human rights in the Arab world. “The group, called Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN), was incorporated in the state of Delaware as a tax-exempt organization in January of this year … According to a statement of core principles, the group would aim to provide ‘a counter narrative in the Arab world and the West to Arab Spring skeptics.’ … The group intended to push for democratic change even when it ran counter to American foreign policy goals. … The documentation indicates Khashoggi was set to lead DAWN, and that it aimed to gather ‘Arab Spring exiles who are scattered in various world capitals and cities, to strengthen their morale and utilize them.’”
This article was originally published by "Washington Post" -
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