Jamal Khashoggi’s murder at the hands of a Saudi Arabian government team means President Donald Trump now faces a question: what to do about it.
On Friday, Saudi Arabia admitted the Washington Post columnist was dead and announced the arrest of 18 individuals including high ranking officials close to the kingdom’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. It was a widely expected step as the kingdom moves to insulate its heir apparent.
A state television news bulletin said a Saudi commission led by the crown prince will spend one month investigating. The bulletin claimed that he was killed in a “fist fight” with the men, who the Saudis claim had gone to Turkey to convince Khashoggi to return to Saudi Arabia.
The kingdom, which had completely denied any knowledge of what happened to the journalist for more than two weeks, expressed “deep regret.” They offered no information on what happened to Khashoggi’s body. Turkish officials have told CNN he was dismembered.
White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said the US “acknowledges the announcement from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia” and will “closely follow the international investigations into this tragic incident.”
The crown prince spoke to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo about the announcement on Friday, a senior administration official said.
Prior to the Saudi announcement Trump indicated he was ready to act, telling reporters Friday he wanted Congress to be involved in a US response. He also hinted that the US is conducting a probe into the Washington Post journalist’s October 2 disappearance inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
‘Get to the bottom of it’
“We’re doing investigations now, we have a lot of people working on it and we have other countries working on it,” Trump told reporters in Arizona. “It’s something that we don’t like, it’s very serious stuff and we’re going to get to the bottom of it.”
“I’m going to have very much Congress involved in determining what to do,” he added.
Trump has said the consequences for Khashoggi’s suspected murder would “have to be very severe,” but he faces a dilemma. He has to balance a valuable alliance against a heinous crime — as well as outraged lawmakers demanding action.
And there will likely be doubts about the Saudis official line. Soon after their announcement, Aaron David Miller, a vice president at the nonpartisan Wilson Center, asked on Twitter whether it was “a royal whitewash?”
Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina tweeted, “To say that I am skeptical of the new Saudi narrative about Mr. Khashoggi is an understatement.”
“Will this be enough to buy off a Trump Administration already inclined to give Saudis the benefit of the doubt?” Miller asked. And he noted that the crown prince has been put in charge of the investigation. “Fox has keys to hen house,” Miller added.
Trump needs Saudi Arabia for his foreign policy priorities. But possible financial ties between Trump’s family and Saudi Arabia are complicating the picture, raising questions about the President’s willingness to crack down on Riyadh.
What’s likely, said Miller and other foreign policy analysts, is the White House will aim to strike a balance between a public punishment and an understanding that at the end of the day, the relationship will continue as before.
“They’re trying to reconcile two unreconcilables,” said Miller, a vice president at the nonpartisan Wilson Center. “They need to maintain the relationship against this horrific act.” The way to synthesize these two unreconcilables, Miller said, “is with a negotiated punishment, a set of understandings that these are the actions the United States will have to take, but we have every understanding that the relationship will continue.”
“They would say, ‘you’re going to have to live with this and at the end of the road, assuming no more transgressions, we can move back to business as usual’,” Miller explained.
In theory, Trump’s arsenal of responses ranges from diplomatic steps to economic penalties. Some options are already off the table though.
Often during a diplomatic spat, a country will show its displeasure by recalling its ambassador or declaring the ambassador of a country “PNG,” or persona non grata — meaning they are no longer welcome to remain.
But the Trump administration has not nominated anyone to be the US ambassador in Riyadh and soon after suspicions about Khashoggi’s disappearance began to intensify, Saudi Arabia called home its ambassador to the US — a son of King Salman and brother of the crown prince.
Closing diplomatic posts
Another possibility would be to close Saudi consulates or other diplomatic outposts, or reduce their diplomatic staff in the US, the way the US did with Russia in 2017 over the fallout from Moscow’s election interference and in 2018 to express anger over Russia’s poisoning on UK soil of a former Russian spy.
“All of those are options if you really wanted to punish them,” said Gerald Feierstein, a former US ambassador to Yemen who is now a director at the Middle East Institute.
Feierstein points to other areas where the US could withdraw cooperation, for example, temporarily suspending cooperation with Saudi intelligence agencies, “though that’s a two-edged sword,” he said, noting that the US gains as well as gives information.
“We could also say we’re going to freeze contacts with the Ministry of the Interior, or any security agencies implicated” in Khashoggi’s death, Feierstein said. That could include “some of the special security organizations Mohammed bin Salman has established,” where some members of the squad of men who killed Khashoggi apparently work.
Trump could also turn to sanctions.
Lawmakers are trying to force his hand on this using a law called the Global Magnitsky Act to trigger an investigation that could lead to penalties for human rights violations. The law requires the President to act within 120 days and gives him legal authority — but doesn’t require him — to institute a travel ban and freeze the assets of a human rights violator in any country.
Like Miller, Feierstein sees the administration trying to carefully craft the punishment.
“My best guess is that they will probably end up trying to limit the scope of the response,” he said. “I think they would likely use Magnitsky to sanction and go after people, but I suspect that that might be all that they do and pronounce that a satisfactory response and hope that they can move on with the relationship.”
Pressure from lawmakers
Lawmakers might push for more.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, told CNN Friday that the Saudi regime is a “criminal enterprise” and that “anything that we’ve heard so far has not been the truth from the Saudis. They just lie.”
He suggested that the US could “cut back on some of their banking, their visas, certainly we have the ability to block arms sales,” which are crucial to Saudi Arabia’s ongoing war in Yemen. “We should have done that after they lied to us about the civilian casualties in Yemen,” Leahy added. Others have suggested halting US military refueling of Saudi planes that are bombing Yemen.
James Carafano, a director at the Heritage Foundation, says that the best course of action is to stop discussing possible punishments and penalties, let things calm and turn things over to investigators.
“The smartest course of action for the US should be to put the emphasis on the investigation,” Carafano said. “They should have sent the FBI director, not the Secretary of State to Turkey and Saudi,” he added, referring to a trip Pompeo took earlier this week.
“The strategic relationship with Saudi Arabia and Turkey is too important to risk what we might do when we don’t know,” Carafano said. “Speculating doesn’t further US policy … it’s absolutely inappropriate. The other reason to focus on an investigation is that Congress can act on this.”
Trump indicated he wants Congress to help determine a response on Friday, as he continued to signal his unhappiness.
“Saudi Arabia’s been a great ally of ours, that is why this is so sad,” Trump said. The President and his administration officials have repeatedly stressed the importance of the US-Saudi relationship.
The White House is relying on Saudi Arabia’s financial support for funding for Syria’s reconstruction, the fight against ISIS and for a Middle East peace plan.
Most crucially, the White House needs Saudi Arabia to keep international oil markets steady as they confront Iran and introduce new energy sanctions against countries that purchase Iranian oil starting November 4.
Pompeo, speaking to Voice of America in Mexico on Friday, said the administration will “consider a wide range of potential responses but I think the important thing to do is that the facts come out.”