Update: Just in case the conspicuously divergent responses from President Trump and Vice President Mike Pence weren't enough of a clue, the Trump Administration has been struggling with how to respond to the murder of Jamal Khashoggi and, more specifically, Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman's suspected involvement in ordering the hit.
Hours after Trump defended the US relationship with Saudi Arabia and specified that he hadn't been briefed on the CIA's purported report assigning guilt to MbS, the State Department issued a statement claiming that the report was "inaccurate" without offering any new details.
"There remain numerous unanswered questions with respect to the murder of Mr. Khashoggi. The State Department will continue to seek all relevant facts," said department spokeswoman (and rumored future UN ambassador) Heather Nauert. "In the meantime, we will continue to consult Congress, and work with other nations to hold accountable those involved in the killing of Jamal Khashoggi."
If that wasn't vague enough, the New York Times reported Saturday night that Kirsten Fontenrose, a National Security Council official, has resigned under murky circumstances - possibly because she advocated a harder line against the Saudis than the administration was comfortable with. The paper credited Fontenrose with helping to mastermind the sanctions against the 17 Saudis earlier this week, but noted that one senior Saudi intelligence official believed to have been involved with the plot (an official who is also a close associated of MbS) was spared.
The exact circumstances of her departure are murky, and it is unclear whether her advocacy for a hawkish response to the killing angered some in the White House. When she returned to Washington, according to the two people, she had a dispute with her bosses at the National Security Council, where she had served as the director for the Persian Gulf region.
Make of that what you will.
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Hours after the publication of a bombshell CIA report claiming that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman had almost certainly ordered the killing of Saudi dissident and former US resident Jamal Khashoggi, responses from lawmakers and senior US government officials - including the president himself - are rolling in.
One of the first to respond was none other than Bob Corker, the outgoing chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who said he believed the CIA's conclusion that MbS ordered the killing, and demanded that the administration "do something" to hold MbS accountable and stop the kingdom from executing the five suspects who had been set up to take the fall for the murder.
"Everything points to the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, MbS, ordering @washingtonpost journalist Jamal #Khashoggi's killing," Corker said. "The Trump administration should make a credible determination of responsibility before MbS executes the men who apparently carried out his orders."
Everything points to the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, MbS, ordering @washingtonpost journalist Jamal #Khashoggi's killing. The Trump administration should make a credible determination of responsibility before MbS executes the men who apparently carried out his orders.— Senator Bob Corker (@SenBobCorker) November 17, 2018
Corker also tweeted a statement about the possibility of imposing Magnitsky Act sanctions on senior Saudi officials believed to be involved with the killing. In the statement, he said the Treasury Department sanctions against 17 Saudis, including a top aide to the Crown Prince who is suspected of having organized the 15-man hit squad that carried it out, was a "significant step."
I have a lot of concerns about the trajectory that Saudi Arabia is on right now, and I think a price needs to be paid. My full statement on the Global Magnitsky sanctions against Saudi officials for the murder of #JamalKhashoggi: pic.twitter.com/EEM0HzGgwg— Senator Bob Corker (@SenBobCorker) November 15, 2018
President Trump, who has notably toned down his rhetoric about the killing and MbS's potential complicity, doubled down on Saturday when he defended the US's "spectacular" relationship with the Saudis and once again pointed to the massive number of jobs and investments he said Saudi Arabia brings to the US.
"We’re taking a look at it. You know, we also have a great ally in Saudi Arabia," Trump said. "They give us a lot of jobs, they give us a lot of business, a lot of economic development. They have been a truly spectacular ally in terms of jobs and economic development."
Trump continued: "And I also think that you know, I’m president, I have to take a lot of things into consideration so we will be talking to the CIA later and lots of others. I’ll be doing that while I’m on the plane. I’ll be speaking also with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo."
Trump added that he had not yet been briefed about the CIA's report, he also said that he'd be speaking with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
President Trump said he will be briefed today on the CIA report that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi while also calling Saudi Arabia "a truly spectacular ally." https://t.co/nBN7c0XUnK pic.twitter.com/RxNtSXEZ8k— NBC Nightly News with Lester Holt (@NBCNightlyNews) November 17, 2018
Playing the bad cop to Trump's good cop, Vice President Mike Pence delivered a decidedly more aggressive statement about the CIA report, telling a group of pool reporters on Saturday that "couldn't comment on classified information" but assured them that Khashoggi's death was an "atrocity" that would be punished by the US, per the Hill.
"It was also an affront to a free and independent press and the United States is determined to hold all of those accountable who are responsible for that murder," he said, according to pool reports.
But Pence carefully hedged his remarks, clarifying that the US would "follow the facts" on Khashoggi's death while arguing that the Trump administration wanted to find a way to preserve a "strong and historic partnership" with the kingdom.
Aside from the purported recording of Khashoggi's agonizing final moments, US intelligence agencies reportedly based their conclusion on a transcript of a phone call between Khalid bin Salman, Mohammad's brother and the kingdom's ambassador to the US. During the call with Khashoggi, the CIA says, KbS assured the journalist that he wouldn't be harmed if he visited the Istanbul consulate, where he would be able to retrieve paperwork needed to marry his Turkish fiance.
For what it's worth, Khalid bin Salman denies that he ever instructed Khashoggi to visit the Saudi embassy in Istanbul.
As we told the Washington Post the last contact I had with Mr. Khashoggi was via text on Oct 26 2017. I never talked to him by phone and certainly never suggested he go to Turkey for any reason. I ask the US government to release any information regarding this claim.— Khalid bin Salman خالد بن سلمان (@kbsalsaud) November 16, 2018
Looking ahead, we wait to see if Saudi Arabia will reward Trump with another 7% drop in the price of oil by coming out against another OPEC+ production cut.