The Saudi assassination of a US-based journalist has put President Donald Trump in an intractable bind.
Does he preserve a close US ally and accept whatever Riyadh says about the murder? Or does he risk a rupture and embrace the conclusion of the Central Intelligence Agency that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the country’s de facto leader, ordered the killing? The US president has refrained from attacking Prince Mohammed ever since Jamal Khashoggi, a veteran Saudi journalist who had been writing articles critical of Riyadh for The Washington Post, was killed and dismembered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2.
With Riyadh under international pressure, the Saudi prosecutor announced the arrest of 21 suspects and charges against 11, saying five will face the possible death penalty.
At the same time, Washington announced sanctions on 17 Saudis allegedly involved, including two top aides of the prince.
That puts the US president in a bind. He has formed a deep alliance with the Saudis over a mutual dislike for Iran and a shared interest in keeping global oil prices steady.
Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner has sealed the relationship through a close personal connection with the prince, known as “MBS.” For that reason, until now, Trump has appears loathe to finger Prince Mohammed for Khashoggi’s murder, saying he hasn’t seen the evidence. He said on Sunday that he will likely only be briefed on the CIA conclusions by Tuesday.
“He can agree with the intelligence evaluation and go along with what Congress wants to do, which means indicating publicly or privately that the US will no longer work with MBS.” Or, she said, he can go against all that and try to protect the White House’s relationship with the prince.
In either case, the risks are high.
Severing relations with the son of King Salman bin Abdulaziz al Saud is an extreme step, but would not necessarily mean a complete bilateral rupture, said Dunne. “Saudi Arabia is not MBS, and MBS is not Saudi Arabia.” Yet it risks spurring changes in the hierarchy of the Saudi royal family, with the outcome unpredictable for Saudi-US relations.
The White House appears divided. Kushner has been quiet about the case and his friend the prince.
One day he denounces it as “one of the worst cover-ups” in history and a “total fiasco.” The next he stresses the importance of the alliance and repeats that Prince Mohammed has personally denied to him that he ordered the assassination.