WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump demanded answers Wednesday from Saudi Arabia about the fate of a missing Saudi writer as lawmakers pushed for sanctions and a top Republican said the man was likely killed after entering a Saudi consulate in Turkey.
Trump said he didn’t know what happened to Jamal Khashoggi and expressed hope that the 59-year-old writer, who went missing a week ago, was still alive. But senior members of Congress with access to U.S. intelligence reporting feared the worst.
More than 20 Republican and Democratic senators instructed Trump to order an investigation into Khashoggi’s disappearance under legislation that authorizes imposition of sanctions for perpetrators of extrajudicial killings, torture or other gross human rights violations.
While no suspects were named, and the lawmakers’ letter to the president is only a pre-step in taking punitive action, it marked departure from decades of close U.S.-Saudi relations that have only intensified under Trump. Riyadh has supported the administration’s tough stance toward Iran, a key rival of Saudi Arabia in the volatile Middle East.
Republican Sen. Bob Corker, who as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee has reviewed the U.S. intelligence into what happened to Khashoggi, said “the likelihood is he was killed on the day he walked into the consulate.” He said that “there was Saudi involvement” in whatever happened with the journalist, who wrote columns for The Washington Post.
“The Saudis have a lot of explaining to do because all indications are that they have been involved at minimum with his disappearance,” Corker told The Associated Press. “Everything points to them.”
Khashoggi, a wealthy former government insider who had been living in the U.S. in self-imposed exile, had gone to the consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2 to get paperwork he needed for his upcoming marriage while his Turkish fiancee waited outside.
Turkish authorities have said he was killed by members of an elite Saudi “assassination squad,” an allegation the Saudi government has dismissed.
Trump told reporters in the Oval Office that he has a call in to Khashoggi’s fiancee, Hatice Cengiz, who has appealed to the president and first lady Melania Trump for help.
Trump said he had spoken with the Saudis about what he called a “bad situation,” but he did not disclose details of his conversations. He also said the U.S. was working “very closely” with Turkey, “and I think we’ll get to the bottom of it.”
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said national security adviser John Bolton and presidential senior adviser Jared Kushner spoke on Tuesday to Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman about Khashoggi. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo then had a follow-up call with the crown prince to reiterate the U.S. request for information and a thorough, transparent investigation.
While angry members of Congress likely won’t cause the administration to end decades of close security ties with Saudi Arabia, the initiation on Wednesday of possible sanctions under the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act indicated the depth of concern on Capitol Hill over Khashoggi’s case. Lawmakers could also throw a wrench into arms sales that require their approval and demand the U.S. scale back support for the Saudi military campaign against Iran-backed rebels in Yemen.
Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., said if Saudi Arabia had lured a U.S. resident into a consulate and killed him, “it’s time for the United States to rethink our military, political and economic relationship with Saudi Arabia.”