Trump's Saudi Arms Deal a Tougher Sell in Senate After Journalist Disappearance, Lawmakers Warn
WASHINGTON -- Senators are threatening to hold a multi-billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia over the disappearance of a Virginia resident believed by U.S. intelligence and Turkish officials to have been murdered and dismembered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul last week.
Saudi journalist in exile Jamal Khashoggi, a Washington Post global affairs columnist, went into the consulate Oct. 2 to get a document needed to marry his Turkish fiancee. She waited outside for 11 hours, but he never emerged.
Turkish officials reportedly told their U.S. counterparts that there is strong video and audio evidence that Khashoggi was killed. “You can hear his voice and the voices of men speaking Arabic,” a source told the Post. “You can hear how he was interrogated, tortured and then murdered.”
The U.S. also reportedly had information before the incident that the Saudis had a plan to try to detain Khashoggi.
President Trump told reporters at an Oval Office signing Thursday that "we're looking at it very strongly" and "we'll be having a report out soon."
"We're working with Turkey, we're working with Saudi Arabia. What happened is a terrible thing, assuming that happened. I mean, maybe we'll be pleasantly surprised, but somehow I tend to doubt it. And we take it very seriously," Trump said.
"It's not our country. It's in Turkey, and it's not a citizen, as I understand it. But a thing like that shouldn't happen. It is a reporter with the Washington Post, and it's -- something like that should not be allowed to happen," he added. "Something like that should not happen. And we intend to get to the bottom of it."
Trump ally Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) told CNN on Thursday that "all the indicators point to Saudi Arabia -- and if it turns out to be Saudi Arabia, as I've said before, there'll be all hell to pay."
"You don't have to be Sherlock Holmes to be concerned here. And if this is done at the hands of the Saudi government, if the crown prince was involved in this in anyway, it will virtually destroy his ability to lead his country on the international stage," Graham added. "...We'd hit them in the wallet and everything, in my view, would be on the table."
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) told reporters, "My instincts say that there is no question that the Saudi government did this, and my instincts say that they murdered him."
Khashoggi lived in the suburban D.C. district of Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), who argued in an op-ed at The Hill that "Congress must lead if the administration won’t."
"When Russian authorities attempted to poison and murder two Russian citizens on British soil earlier this year, Britain and the entire international community, including the United States, reacted with punitive measures against Russia. This included the expulsion of diplomats and additional sanctions," the congressman wrote. "We have to stand ready to react with similar strength and unity if it is determined this act against Khashoggi was carried out by Saudi Arabia. It is not acceptable behavior and those responsible for it will be held to account, no matter how high up it may go."
Virgin Group founder Richard Branson announced that he's suspending directorship of two Red Sea tourism projects with the Saudis. "Virgin will also suspend its discussions with the Public Investment Fund over the proposed investment in our space companies Virgin Galactic and Virgin Orbit," he announced on the company website.
Trump's arms deal was already on hold in the Senate over previous concerns about the Saudis. "Right now, it's not moving forward because I've stopped it through our procedures," Senate Foreign Relations Committee Ranking Member Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) told reporters in the Capitol. "If I were to clear it and it were to move to the floor, I think there's a growing sense that there has to be a message to the Saudis."
Corker told CNN that he told a defense contractor in his my office a few weeks ago "don't even attempt to make this happen right now because it will get voted down." Now, after the disappearance of Khashoggi, he added, "obviously that's the case."
Trump, though, expressed to Fox News his reluctance to put the brakes on the arms deal.
"That would be hurting us," he said, arguing "we have jobs. We have a lot of things happening in this country. We have a country that's doing probably better economically than it's ever done before. Part of that is what we are doing with our defense systems and everybody is wanting them, and frankly, I think that would be a very, very tough pill to swallow for our country."
UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric told reporters Thursday that the world body has "no independent information" and is "not, obviously, involved in any investigation."
"There have been contacts with Saudi officials -- from the UN Secretariat to Saudi officials -- to express our concern about Mr. Khashoggi and his fate," he said. "And we continue to call on, obviously, on the Saudi authorities to cooperate fully with the investigations and we understand the Turkish authorities are doing [the investigation]."
A reporter asked Dujarric why the UN is not "making more of a public fuss about this."
"Enough with the quiet diplomacy. Doesn't have to be a journalist. Man walks into a consulate and may have been dismembered by a saw," the reporter said.
"I think the secretary-general has been very public and very strong in his defense of journalists, in calling for protection of journalists," Dujarric said. "...I think this is an issue that happened on Turkish soil. The Turkish authorities are clearly in the lead in the investigation. We would hope that the Saudis and everybody else cooperates with them."