WASHINGTON – The suspected murder of an eminent Saudi journalist exposed a growing rift on Thursday between the White House and Congress on US policy in Saudi Arabia, while Republican MPs asked for an investigation into where Jamal Khashoggi was located , even if President Trump had declared his relations with Riyadh "excellent".
The US-led Houthi rebel bombing campaign in Yemen, which killed thousands of civilians, was already a source of tension between Congress and the Trump administration.
The disappearance of the week of Mr. Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist well connected to the Washington Post who lives in Virginia, has irritated Republicans and Democrats in Congress, who accused the White House of moving too slowly to seek answers to the kingdom.
But Trump quickly clarified that he would not do it.
"What's the use of this?" Mr. Trump asked, speaking to journalists noon in the Oval Office.
"I would not be in favor of stopping a country from to spend $ 110 billion – which is a historical record – and let Russia have that money and let China have that money" Trump said, referring to an arms deal with the Saudis, brokered last year, which the president said will lead to new American jobs.
Earlier on Thursday, in an interview with Fox & Friends, Trump said American investigators were working with Turkish and Saudi officials to determine what had happened at Khashoggi, which has not been seen since October 2 after being entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Turkish officials suspect that a Saudi team has killed and dismembered Mr. Khashoggi inside the consulate.
The president said that he and his administration are "observing it very, very seriously" and soon they are expected to have more information.
I want to find out what happened, "Trump said." He came in and did not seem to be out. "
" We do not like it, "Trump said." I do not like it. That's no good. "But he added that relations with the kingdom were" excellent. "
Congressional pressure could force the White House and the State Department to change important aspects of foreign policy – including, if necessary, the withdrawal of support for the Saudi Arabia campaign driven by Yemen's civil war In June, a key vote on arms sales to the Saudis was approved in a restrictive way and future ammunition sales were blocked.
executives of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee sent a bipartisan letter to Mr. Trump asking for an investigation into the fact that "the highest officials of the Government of Saudi Arabia" were responsible for human rights violations in the case of Mr. Khashoggi.
The letter invoked a statute that the Congress had promulgated in December 2016, according to which the executive power received by that letter, has 120 days to decide whether to sanction foreign officials.
It is not clear, however, if the Trump administration will consider itself obliged to respect if the president does not want to intertwine with the Saudis. When former President Barack Obama signed legislation that created that law, he issued a statement that challenged it as an "institutional intrusion on executive power," and stated that the presidents would "maintain the discretion to refuse to respond to such laws. requests when appropriate ".
The Trump administration was widely criticized for the relative silence on Khashoggi's disappearance until Monday, six days after entering the Saudi consulate. Critics said the slow reaction could encourage Saudi Arabia and other authoritarian nations to commit human rights violations.
The intense examination of Saudi Arabia and its crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, could put a strain on his close relationship with Jared Kushner, Mr. Trump's son-in-law and the best Middle East consultant . Mr. Kushner has nurtured the prince's support for an Israeli-Palestinian peace plan, but King Salman of Saudi Arabia has so far rejected him.
There are indications that the operation aimed at Mr. Khashoggi was at least approved by Prince Mohammed.
US intelligence agencies collected wiretaps of communications from Saudi officials who were discussing a plan to lure Khashoggi to Saudi Arabia from his home in Virginia and then arrest him, a former senior American official said. The official added that it was inconceivable that such a plan could be carried out without the approval of the crown prince.
Turkish security officials suspect that Khashoggi was killed by a Saudi team sent by the command of the kingdom and that his body was broken up with a bonesaw and taken out of the building. A Turkish newspaper near the government published the names of 15 suspects who believed they left Turkey to return to Saudi Arabia on the same day on two private planes; one is one of the best experts in Saudi autopsy and another lieutenant of the Royal Saudi Air Force.
The Saudi leaders claim that Khashoggi left the consulate alone.
Mr. Trump made Saudi Arabia a destination for his first trip abroad as president in May 2017, during which he announced a $ 110 billion deal with the kingdom. Mr. Trump does not rely solely on Saudi Arabia to persuade Palestinians to support a peace plan, but it also depends on the kingdom to help contain Iranian influence in the region.
Hussein Ibish, a scholar residing in the Arab Gulf States Institute, said the growing tensions in the United States over the disappearance of Khashoggi and other issues "will be significant".
"Without a doubt Saudi Arabia has become one of the foreign policy issues that resonated in the domestic context," said Ibish.
However, he said the United States had no choice but to rely on Saudi Arabia as an ally if it seeks influence in the Middle East. "It is not able to project influence and strength in the region without the cooperation of an important regional power," said Ibish. "There are no good options for Saudi Arabia".
Congress became increasingly angry at the conduct of the bombing campaign in Yemen, which became a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. An August 9 plane attack that hit a school bus, killing more than 40 school children, was particularly shocking – even for a war in which children were the first victims, suffering from one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world, with increasing malnutrition and cholera epidemics.
The war in Yemen had killed more than 10,000 people before the UN stopped updating the death toll two years ago.
In response to reports of civilian casualties, Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey, the Democratic High in the Foreign Relations Committee, has raised a proposal to sell Raytheon's 60,000 laser-guided bombs to Saudi Arabia, a deal worth about $ 1 billion. (Mr. Menendez is also negotiating a similar deal to sell the same weapons to the United Arab Emirates, the main Saudi partner in the air war in Yemen.)
Mr. Khashoggi's case "only reinforces the need for administration to answer your questions about the need to approve the proposed sales, "said Juan Pachon, spokesperson for Menendez.
In view of the certification, however, international aid groups in Yemen have compiled a list of 37 incidents between June and September involving civilians killed or injured in the coalition strikes and provided them to US officials, according to two officials informed on the numbers of the victims.
Frustration about the war in Yemen extends to Pentagon officials and American commanders. At the end of August, the main American air commander in the Middle East urged the Saudi-led Arab coalition to be more open to an investigation into the aerial attack on the school bus.
"They need to go out and say what happened" The officer, General Gen. Jeffrey L. Harrigian, stated in an interview with the New York Times.
A week after General Harrigian's comments were made public, the Saudi-led coalition recognized that the air strike was unjustified and pledged to hold anyone accountable for the mistake. But human rights groups have said that the Saudis have promised similar wrong strikes in the past with poor results.
"If there is no follow-up, clear benchmarks, it is unlikely to see the promises made by the updated coalition," said Kristine Beckerle, a Yemen researcher with Human Rights Watch.
Noah Weiland contributed to the report.