Trump Voices Concern, Senators Warn of Consequences Over Saudi Journalist Murder Claims

By Patrick Goodenough | October 8, 2018 | 8:26pm EDT
A man holds a poster of Jamal Khashoggi during a protest organized by members of the Turkish-Arabic Media Association at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 8, 2018. (Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images)

( – President Trump on Monday gave his first public reaction to startling claims that a prominent Saudi journalist critical of the ruling family was murdered inside a Saudi diplomatic mission in Turkey, expressing concern and the hope that the situation would be resolved.

“I am concerned about it,” Trump told reporters after returning to the White House for the swearing in of Supreme Court justice Brett Kavanaugh.

“I don’t like hearing about it,” he said. “Hopefully that will sort itself out. Right now nobody knows anything about it but there are some pretty bad stories going around. I do not like it.”

Lawmakers from both parties are demanding answers, and warning the incident could impact U.S. ties with Saudi Arabia.

Jamal Khashoggi has not been seen publicly since he visited the Saudi consulate in Istanbul last Tuesday, reportedly to obtain documents for a planned marriage. His fiancée, waiting outside, says he never emerged from the building.

Turkish sources, speaking to wire services on condition of anonymity, are claiming that Khashoggi was murdered inside the diplomatic premises, his body dismembered and smuggled out.

The accusations have sparked a diplomatic row between Turkey and Saudi Arabia, whose government officials dismissed the charges as “baseless,” and claim Khashoggi left the consulate the same day. The Saudis sent officials to Istanbul to help in the investigation, and allowed some local journalists to tour the consulate.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Monday called on the Saudi consulate to provide evidence to back its claim that the journalist left the building last Tuesday.

“The claimants are obligated to prove their claims,” he said during a visit to Hungary. “If he left the building, then you need to prove it.”

A similar call came from the International Federation of Journalists, which represents more than 600,000 journalists around the world.

“While waiting for Turkey’s official investigation report, we call on the Saudi authorities to immediately release the images supporting their claims that he left the building,” said general secretary Anthony Bellanger.

Turkey’s national intelligence organization (MIT) has been tasked to help Istanbul police in the investigation.

“Members of the police and MIT will reportedly jointly analyze surveillance videos of the consulate’s entrance and exits as well as the airports in Istanbul and gather any information that might help the case,” the Hurriyet daily reported.

Khashoggi, who has held senior positions in some of the kingdom’s best-known papers, has lived in the U.S. for the past year, and his columns for the Washington Post have been outspokenly critical of the powerful heir to the throne, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Saudi Arabia has one of the world’s worst records of press freedom. In the latest annual Reporters Without Frontiers world press freedom index, the kingdom was ranked 169th out of 180 countries.

Erdogan’s Turkey was not much better, coming in in 157th place.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz is first in line for the Saudi throne. (Photo: Saudi Press Agency)

Saudi Arabia is a longstanding, but also often controversial, ally of the U.S., an oil-rich, Wahhabist-ruled kingdom with one of the world’s most-criticized human rights and religious freedom records.

Mohammed bin Salman claims to be championing reforms, but his anti-corruption crackdown has also drawn scrutiny, with some critics viewing it as a cover for purging rivals and consolidating power.

The war in Yemen is also deeply controversial. The Saudis lead a military coalition established in 2015 in support of Yemen’s internationally-recognized government in its fight against the Iranian-backed Houthi militia.

Thousands of civilians have been killed in airstrikes attributed to the coalition, leaving even some critics of Iran’s regional behavior uneasy about Mohammed bin Salman’s campaign.

The Committee to Protect Journalists said Saudi Arabia “has stepped up its repression of critical journalists in the past year at home. We hope this has not now spread abroad.”

‘There will be a heavy price to be paid’

Khashoggi’s disappearance and alleged murder is drawing some strong reactions in the U.S. Congress, with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle finding some common ground after the divisive Kavanaugh confirmation process.

“It is imperative that we find out what happened to Mr. Khashoggi and the Saudi government give a clear answer as to their conduct and information on his whereabouts,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.).

Graham added that after a conversation with Sens. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and Ben Cardin (D-Md.), “[w]e agree if there was any truth to the allegations of wrongdoing by the Saudi government it would be devastating to the US-Saudi relationship and there will be a heavy price to be paid – economically and otherwise.”

“Our country’s values should be and must be a cornerstone of our foreign policy with foes and allies alike,” Graham said.

Corker, who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, tweeted that he had raised the issue with the Saudi ambassador to the U.S., “and while we await more information, know we will respond accordingly to any state that targets journalists abroad.”

“If true, the international community must stand together and enforce consequences,” said Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), the committee’s ranking member. He added that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo “must speak out forcefully against the silencing of Arab activists, dissidents and journalists.”

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said he prayed Khashoggi was still alive, “[b]ut if this deeply disturbing news report is confirmed, the United States & the civilized world must respond strongly, and I will review all options in Senate.”

Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) tweeted that the if claims proved to be true, “it should represent a fundamental break in our relationship with Saudi Arabia,” and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said that, if true, “[a]ny official involved should be held to account.”

“Have the Saudis killed their leading dissident and critic of their war in Yemen?” wondered Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) on his Twitter feed, while Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), ranking member on the House Intelligence Committee, said, “We must demand immediate answers from the Saudi government.”

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