The White House has responded to a preliminary Saudi-led investigation into the disappearance of Saudi journalist and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.
President Donald Trump called the internal investigation “a very important first step” and said he is considering “some form of sanction” after a Saudi general prosecutor determined that Khashoggi was killed in a “brawl and quarrel” inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
A preliminary investigation carried out by Saudi prosecutors found that the “suspects” who murdered Khashoggi came to Turkey to negotiate his possible return to Saudi Arabia. Khashoggi previously served as an advisor to the royal family until he lost his influence in an anti-corruption purge by Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman.
Khashoggi fled to America, and the former regime spokesman became one of the royal family’s most outspoken critics after taking a position with the Washington Post. Khashoggi knew that if he ever went home, he faced arrest and a long prison sentence.
However, Khashoggi must have thought it was safe to visit the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2 to secure documents for his second marriage. As the journalist’s fiancé waited outside for his return, Khashoggi was fighting for his life inside.
The Saudi report stated that the talks over Khashoggi’s potential return “developed in a negative way” and “led to a fight and a quarrel between some of them and the citizen.”
“The brawl aggravated to lead to his death and their attempt to conceal and cover what happened,” the Saudi prosecutor wrote.
Walking a fine line
When asked if he found that Saudi investigation credible, Trump said, “I do, I do,” but cautioned, “It’s early, we haven’t finished our review or investigation, but … I think it’s a very important first step.”
Trump’s remarks coincided with the official White House response published by White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders, who said that the administration would “closely follow the international investigations into this tragic incident and advocate for justice that is timely, transparent, and in accordance with all due process.
Statement on Saudi Arabia Investigation: pic.twitter.com/DjBdwZAGAi
— Sarah Sanders (@PressSec) October 19, 2018
Trump must walk a fine line following Khashoggi’s disappearance. On the one hand, Trump needs to preserve America’s close relationship with the Persian Gulf country, the most influential member of OPEC and an indispensable countermeasure to Iranian regional hegemony.
On the other hand, Trump has sought to placate U.S. lawmakers and international allies who are calling for a firm response to Saudi antagonism. While many American business leaders and policymakers have praised bin Salman’s visionary reforms, others point to the detainment of hundreds of Saudi nationals under the guise of an anti-corruption crackdown started in 2017.
The Saudi regime initially denied possessing any knowledge of Khashoggi’s disappearance and said that the reporter left the Saudi consulate on Oct. 2. Turkish sources have suggested that Khashoggi died in an interrogation gone wrong, even alleging that Khashoggi’s interrogators were in possession of a bone saw and dismembered his body following the journalist’s death.
Due to these conflicting reports and suspicions regarding the crown prince’s involvement in the homicide, Trump has been forced to abandon the possibility for a measured response. During a campaign stop in Arizona on Friday, he floated the possibility of sanctions, though stopped short of withdrawing a major U.S. arms deal with the conservative kingdom.
“I would prefer, if there is going to be some form of sanction or what we may determine to do, if anything … that we don’t use as retribution canceling $110bn worth of work, which means 600,000 jobs,” he said.