Facing pressure from Congress to act, President Donald Trump vowed "severe punishment" on Saudi Arabia if it turns out that missing WaPo reporter Jamal Khashoggi was killed in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, as Trump turned up the pressure on the kingdom in an interview to be broadcast Sunday night.
"Nobody knows" whether Saudi officials are involved although they "deny it vehemently," Trump said in an excerpt of a CBS News “60 Minutes” interview."It’s being looked at very, very strongly. We would be very upset and angry if that was the case."
"We’re going to get to the bottom of it, and there will be severe punishment,” the president said, noting that the Saudis denied "in every way you can imagine" having anything to do with Khashoggi's disappearance when his son-in-law Jared Kushner spoke with Saudi Arabia's crown prince. But Trump said the country may still be responsible and an investigation is ongoing. "Could it be them? Yes," the president said.
Khashoggi, a Saudi critic of the regime who wrote for the Washington Post, disappeared since he entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2 to pick up a document for his upcoming wedding. Turkish officials have said they believe he was killed and dismembered there.
On Saturday, the Turkish pro-government newspaper Sabah daily reported that Turkey’s investigation into Khashoggi's disappearance revealed recordings made on his Apple Watch purportedly indicating he was tortured and killed. The report was published after a delegation from Saudi Arabia arrived in Turkey for a joint investigation into his disappearance.
“The moments when Khashoggi was interrogated, tortured and murdered were recorded in the Apple Watch’s memory,” the paper said, adding that the watch had synched with his iPhone, which his fiancée was carrying outside the consulate. The Turkish newspaper said Saudi intelligence agents had realized after he died that the watch was recording and they used his finger print to unlock it, deleting some files, but not all of them. The recordings were subsequently found on his phone, it said.
That said, considering that Turkey has all too often stretched reality to suit its various political goals and ambitions - the "failed" 2016 coup coming to mind - any official Turkish version of events, especially one based on "sources" and without factual backing should be taken with a grain of salt.
Perhaps that explains why despite the escalation in rhetoric, Trump was still hesitant. In Trump's interview, the president said new actions should not jeopardize the Saudi military equipment contracts held by companies such as Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Raytheon which he said would put jobs at risk.
Using the economy as a straw man to avoid cracking down on Riyadh, Trump siad that "I don’t want to hurt jobs. I don’t want to lose an order like that,” he said. "There are other ways of punishing, to use a word that’s a pretty harsh word, but it’s true."
"There's a lot at stake," Mr. Trump continued, "And, maybe especially so because this man was a reporter. There's something, you'll be surprised to hear me say that, there's something really terrible and disgusting about that if that was the case."
As Bloomberg notes, Trump’s hesitation to strike back at the kingdom reflects close ties the White House has nurtured with the nation’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and his administration’s acquiescence to other Saudi actions that have drawn international condemnation.
What is perhaps more bizarre is that the true Saudi transgression, its ongoing war against political and religious opponents in Yemen has failed to lead to any condemnation, by either the president or the suddenly all too vocal Congress. Under Trump, the U.S. has continued to back - and equip - a Saudi bombing campaign against Houthi rebels in neighboring Yemen that’s killed thousands of civilians, providing American logistical support and weapons.
Meanwhile, as senators push for sanctions against the Saudis if the murder allegations prove true, Trump has said only that he’d take unspecified action. “He went in and it doesn’t look like he came out,” the president observed in a Fox News interview.
Saudi Arabia insists Khashoggi left its consulate alive shortly, while Turkey claims it has proof, so far undisclosed, that the reporter was tortured and killed inside the consulate. What really happened has yet to be determined.