WASHINGTON — President Trump acknowledged yesterday that U.S.-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi is likely dead and threatened “very severe” consequences if Saudi Arabia is found to be responsible.
But Trump’s willingness to give the Saudis more time to investigate the matter — at the behest of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, even as U.S. intelligence agencies and international leaders say Saudi Arabia’s crown prince Mohammed bin Salman is behind Khashoggi’s Oct. 2 disappearance — complicates the growing crisis with the U.S.’s uneasy ally.
“It will have to be very severe,” Trump said of the response of Saudis are found responsible for killing Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist who wrote critically of the Saudis.
But, Trump added, referring to ongoing probes by Saudi Arabia and Turkey: “We’re waiting for the results of about three different investigations.”
Trump spoke just hours after Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin joined other international leaders and companies in pulling out of next week’s Future Investment Initiative summit in the Saudi Arabian capital, Riyadh, billed as “Davos in the Desert.”
The uneven response from the administration, even as a bipartisan chorus from congressional lawmakers have called for action against Saudi Arabia, represent the difficulty of isolating a nation long seen as a U.S. strategic partner despite its leader’s growing reputation as a brutal human rights abuser.
“There are more structural problems with the relationship (between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia) that relate to Mohammed bin Salman’s consolidation of power,” said Barbara A. Leaf, senior fellow at The Washington Institute and former U.S. ambassador to the United Arab Emirates. “There are problems that go far beyond Jamal’s death, and they’re problems that do not lend themselves to simple tools or solutions.”
Benjamin H. Friedman, a senior fellow at Defense Priorities and an adjunct lecturer at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs, said actions like the withdrawal from the Riyadh summit will be a blow to the Saudis, but likely not enough to get a satisfactory result.
“These kinds of shaming efforts probably have a cumulative effect which is significant, but this is not going to turn Saudi Arabia into a liberal government,” Friedman said.
“But it may cause them to limit some of the excesses that we have seen recently.”