When rumors first slipped out of Istanbul that Saudi journalist and Washington Post contributing writer Jamal Khashoggi had been murdered at the behest of the Saudi royal family, President Donald Trump refused to even concede that Saudi Arabia may have had a hand in the killing. As evidence mounted against the Saudi regime, including the publication of grisly details gleaned from audio recordings obtained by Turkish media, Trump continued to defend the kingdom, and reminded the American public about a massive $110 billion arms deal he negotiated with them a year before, and the importance of Saudi Arabia’s friendship.
Now that the Saudi government has admitted Khashoggi was killed in their consulate, but insists Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman had nothing to do with it, President Trump is facing one of the most difficult foreign policy crises during his time in office, and one that may permanently damage America’s standing as a global champion of human rights and press freedom depending on what he does.
“This is a big issue that ties in not just to attacks on journalism, and an attack on the free press, which is important, but it’s now tied in to a $110 billion arms deal, it’s tied in to the Saudi economy, which wants to transition away from oil ... and it most importantly has to do with a lot of regional complexity around the Trump administration’s foreign policy in the Middle East which is centered on a very transactional relationship with Saudi Arabia,” WGBH news analyst and CEO of the GroundTruth Project Charlie Sennott said on Boston Public Radio this morning.
Though Trump campaigned on the promise to bring his business acumen to the White House, Sennott says this is one situation the president can’t look at in purely transactional terms.
“We have to have some belief that our highest office in the land holds up our highest ideals, and that when someone, a journalist, is killed through extrajudicial killing by a regime that’s carrying out human rights abuses in Yemen, by a regime that we’ve always had a very cynical relationship with, there are times you have to call them out on it, and I really believe this is one of those times,” Sennott said.
As more details emerge, it’s apparent that Khashoggi’s death was not an accident, but rather part of a coordinated attack within the consulate; the only question, and what Trump has been clinging to, is whether Crown Prince Salman was aware of this operation or not. Despite the president’s desire to stay neutral, others have publicly rebuked the kingdom for lying about whether Khashoggi had been killed in the embassy in the first place.
“The relationship is important, but our values are more important," Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) told CNN on Monday. "I've been the leading supporter along with John McCain of the U.S.-Saudi relationship. I feel completely betrayed."
With a growing chorus of anger against the kingdom and their alleged role in Khashoggi’s death, President Trump seems to be capitulating. On Monday, he told reporters at the White House that he was “unsatisfied” with what he’s heard coming from the Saudi royal family, but also reiterated that he didn’t want to damage the economic relationship with the kingdom. As far as Sennott is concerned, however, on this issue the president can’t have it both ways, and will eventually need to take a hard stance.
“The Trump administration is going to have to take some serious action as the investigation unfolds and really hold the House of Saud’s feet to the fire on this. They need to find out what happened, there needs to be some justice,” Sennott said.