In the wake of the Oct. 2 disappearance of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, there were weeks of conflicting accounts and mind-numbing allegations. President Donald Trump initially took a cautious, wait-and-see attitude. As the full contours of Khashoggi’s fate were increasingly revealed, however, Trump expressed frustration at the lack of transparency from the Saudi government: “I am not satisfied with what I heard,” he said on Oct. 22 after a conversation with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Sultan. “We’re going to get the bottom of it.”
Since then, the bottom has been found: The Turkish and American intelligence communities concluded that Khashoggi was assassinated and dismembered in the consulate by a team of Saudi government agents, and that the killing was authorized by the Saudi crown prince himself. The revelations brought worldwide opprobrium against MBS, who is already embattled: This week, five humanitarian groups called for an end to U.S. support of the Saudi-led war in Yemen, while the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom issued a strong rebuke of Saudi Arabia for promoting hatred and violence in Saudi textbooks.
Yet Trump, who once characterized the Khashoggi killing as “the worst cover-up ever,” issued a statement last week unequivocally backing the Saudi government. He pointed to Iran’s culpability in the war in Yemen and its ongoing hostility toward Israel and noted the kingdom’s steadfast opposition to Iran. He mentioned significant scheduled Saudi investment in the U.S. economy. And in direct conflict with the conclusions of his own intelligence community, he asserted that the facts will never be known about the Khashoggi killing, including MBS’ knowledge of it – dismissing the CIA’s findings with a cavalier “Maybe he did or maybe he didn’t!”
In response, lawmakers from both sides of the aisle are speaking out against Trump’s Saudi position, including frequent Trump defenders like senators Lindsey Graham and Rand Paul. Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker tweeted, “I never thought I’d see the day a White House would moonlight as a public relations firm for the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia.” And Sen. Mike Lee said on Meet the Press that the president’s defense of MBS on the Khashoggi killing “is inconsistent with the intelligence I’ve seen,” adding, “I don’t know why he’s siding with the Saudis.”
We agree with those criticisms, as well as with Sen. Ben Cardin, who said, “Congress will need to act where President Trump is refusing.”
Despite the hand-wringing and criticisms, however, there is currently nothing on the legislative agenda that suggests that Congress is pursuing the Khashoggi issue. We hope there soon will be. Khashoggi was a journalist who was killed by the Saudi government for being critical of that government. His murder violates the fundamental notion of a free press that Americans hold so dear. If the president is not willing to hold MBS accountable for this cringeworthy crime, Congress should.