Report

The Investigators Trump Says Are in Turkey Don’t Seem to Be There

Under pressure to act, the president appears to get out ahead of his team on the Khashoggi probe.

Security personnel at the front door of Saudi Arabia's consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 11. (Chris McGrath/Getty Images)
Security personnel at the front door of Saudi Arabia's consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 11. (Chris McGrath/Getty Images)

Responding to criticism from both Republicans and Democrats that he has been slow to act, U.S. President Donald Trump declared Thursday that he was looking intently into the disappearance of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul nine days ago, saying, “We have investigators over there, and we’re working with Turkey, and frankly we’re working with Saudi Arabia.”

The statement during a Fox and Friends interview, however, flummoxed U.S. officials in Washington, who said no formal request for an investigation had yet come from Turkey.

Under FBI guidelines, the bureau can assist in an overseas investigation if it receives a specific request for assistance from the host country where a crime has been committed (though in the case of acts of terrorism or offenses against U.S. citizens, the FBI will investigate anyway). But Turkey—with which the Trump administration has had tense relations—has resisted asking for help, saying that apart from Saudi assistance, it is acting on its own.

As of Thursday, the FBI had only a single legal attaché in Turkey, stationed in Ankara. The FBI declined to comment for this article, and the National Security Council was unable to clarify what Trump meant.

Vice President Mike Pence has said the U.S. government “stands ready to assist” with the Khashoggi investigation, but officials at his office did not elaborate.

The unexplained disappearance of Khashoggi, who had written critical articles about Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for the Washington Post, and the mounting evidence that he may have been killed by Saudi agents on the orders of the crown prince, a close Trump ally, has placed the U.S. president under increasing pressure to act against Riyadh.

On Wednesday, a bipartisan group of more than 20 senators, including Trump loyalists such as Lindsey Graham, asked the administration to investigate Khashoggi’s possible killing  and, if Saudi complicity is shown, to consider levying sanctions against senior Saudi officials under the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act.

Graham, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said there would be “hell to pay” if the allegations were true. “If this man was murdered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, that would cross every line of normality in the international community,” he said. “If they’re this brazen, it shows contempt. Contempt for everything we stand for, contempt for the relationship.”

Trump, however, has continued to defend the relationship with Mohammed bin Salman and especially the hefty arms deal negotiated last year by his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who has become friendly with the crown prince.

“I would not be in favor of stopping a country from spending $110 billion—which is an all-time record—and letting Russia have that money and letting China have that money,” Trump said. The president this week called relations with Saudi Arabia “excellent” and described Mohammed bin Salman as “a fine man.”

The blowback from Washington could threaten Mohammed bin Salman’s prospects as crown prince as well. He has justified his harsh crackdown on political dissenters such as Khashoggi by making the case that he will bring dramatic economic, social, and religious reforms, as laid out in his proposed Saudi 2030 vision.

But some of his biggest plans, including an initial public offering to sell coveted shares of the state-owned oil company Saudi Aramco, have faltered, and he has responded by making more enemies within the royal Saud family at home.

Some U.S. analysts believe that a cutoff of U.S. ties—which for now seems highly unlikely—would doom the crown prince and he would have to be removed by his father, the king, from succession.

The fruit of Mohammed bin Salman’s efforts to cultivate powerful allies in the West was to have been on display in Riyadh next week, when he planned to host a Davos-style international conference at the same Ritz-Carlton hotel where last fall he detained Saudi elites accused of corruption. But the New York Times has already pulled out as a sponsor, and other participants may soon follow, including Goldman Sachs executive Dina Powell, who has been considered Trump’s top choice to replace departing U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley.

And if the Democrats win control of the House of Representatives in the U.S. midterm elections next month, the pressure to part ways with Mohammed bin Salman over both his crackdown on dissent and the bloody war he’s waging in Yemen will grow only more acute, analysts say.

Michael Hirsh is a senior correspondent at Foreign Policy@michaelphirsh

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