Trump takes steps to punish Saudi Arabia

Trump takes steps to punish Saudi Arabia
© Getty Images

President TrumpDonald John TrumpAvenatti ‘still considering’ presidential run despite domestic violence arrest Mulvaney positioning himself to be Commerce Secretary: report Kasich: Wouldn’t want presidential run to ‘diminish my voice’ MORE on Tuesday ramped up his rhetoric against Saudi Arabia over the death of Jamal Khashoggi, as the U.S. took its first steps to punish the kingdom over the incident that has triggered global outrage.

Speaking to reporters at the White House, Trump criticized the operation that led to the journalist's death as the “worst cover-up ever” and said whoever is responsible “should be in big trouble.”

“They had a very bad original concept. It was carried out poorly and the cover-up was one of the worst cover-ups in the history of cover-ups,” Trump said. “Very simple. Bad deal, should have never been thought of. Somebody really messed up.”

Asked later to clarify his comments, Trump said was condemning the entire Saudi operation and not just the cover-up. 

“I’m saying they should have never thought about it,” he said. “Once they thought about it, everything else went wrong also. It should have never happened. It should have never been done ... There should have never been an execution or a cover up."

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced minutes after Trump's initial remarks that the U.S. is revoking visas for some Saudi officials allegedly responsible for Khashoggi’s death. He said the U.S. is also weighing sanctions designed to target human-rights violators, a step that was requested by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

ADVERTISEMENT

“These penalties will not be the last word on this matter from the United States,” said Pompeo. “We’re making very clear that the United States does not tolerate this kind of ruthless action to silence Mr. Khashoggi, a journalist, through violence.”

Pompeo did not immediately provide more information on the visa revocations, including how many have been taken away.

The actions represent the first steps the U.S. has taken to penalize Saudi Arabia over the death of Khashoggi, who was killed inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2.

They come hours after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan delivered a forceful rejection of the Saudis’ shifting accounts of Khashoggi’s fate, saying the dissident journalist was murdered in a “brutal” preplanned operation directed by top Saudi officials.

Those remarks appeared to resonate with Trump, who is growing frustrated with Saudi Arabia as negative headlines continue to pour in about the Khashoggi plot.

“Nobody likes what happened,” Trump said of the reaction he has heard from foreign leaders.

At the same time, the president signaled there are limits to how far he is willing to go to punish Saudi Arabia, the country at the center of his administration’s foreign policy in the Middle East.

Trump said he will render a final judgment on who was responsible for Khashoggi’s death after CIA Director Gina Haspel and other U.S. officials return over the next few days from Turkey, where they were reviewing evidence in the case.

The president also stressed that he remains opposed to ending arms sales to Saudi Arabia.

“I will tell you that Russia and China would love to have that military order,” he said. “We do that, we’re just hurting ourselves.”

Pompeo, too, made clear that Washington intends to maintain its broader relationship with Riyadh even as he announced the punishments.

“We continue to maintain a strong partnership with the kingdom of Saudi Arabia,” he said. “Neither the president nor I are happy with this situation. Our shared strategic interest with Saudi Arabia will remain.”

Trump said he would defer to Congress, at least to an extent, on deciding whether to punish the country.

“In terms of what we ultimately do, I’m going to leave it very much — in conjunction with me — I’m going to leave it up to Congress,” Trump said, adding he hopes to receive a bipartisan recommendation on penalties.

Lawmakers from both parties in Congress have expressed support for sanctions on Saudi Arabia in response to the killing of Khashoggi, a former contributing columnist to The Washington Post who was critical of the Saudi royal family.

Some have even called on Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to be removed from the line of succession if he is implicated in the plot. The crown prince, who directs the Saudi government’s day-to-day operations, is suspected of being involved.

“My hope is that if the facts lead to the crown prince, MBS, that there will be a decision to change the leadership, the succession,” Sen. Rob PortmanRobert (Rob) Jones PortmanThe case for bipartisan solutions GOP lawmakers condemn attempted attacks on Democrats Trump takes steps to punish Saudi Arabia MORE (R-Ohio), a member of the Foreign Relations panel, said in an interview with CNN. “It's not our decision. It's theirs.”

Members of Congress have previously voiced frustration with how Trump has approached the case.

On Tuesday, Pompeo dodged a question as to whether he still has faith in Mohammed, or if he thinks the crown prince should at least temporarily step aside.

Members of Congress have previously voiced frustration with how Trump has approached the case.

The president initially accepted the Saudis' explanation that Khashoggi was killed in an altercation with agents inside the consulate as credible, even as lawmakers and world leaders dismissed it.

Trump later walked those comments back, saying on Monday he was “not satisfied” with the Saudi response after speaking with the crown prince.

But the president later said that Khashoggi's death was the result of a “plot gone awry,” comments that tracked with Saudi Arabia's account of a rogue operation that did not involve Crown Prince Mohammed or other top officials.

It became more difficult for Trump to offer equivocal responses after Erdoğan delivered a highly anticipated speech, in which he promised to offer the “naked truth” about Khashoggi’s death.

Erdoğan said Khashoggi was the victim of a “ferocious murder” that involved multiple teams of Saudi agents. The Turkish leader said senior Saudi generals and intelligence officers are believed to be involved, but stopped short of naming Crown Prince Mohammed and his father, King Salman.

Erdoğan has sought to use information about Khashoggi’s killing to raise pressure on the Saudis to be more forthcoming and, by extension, push Trump to unambiguously reject the Saudi account, regional experts believe.

They also say the Turkish leader could be trying to use leverage to push Saudi Arabia to offer financial assistance to his country’s ailing economy.

Saudi officials have repeatedly denied that King Salman or Crown Prince Mohammed were involved in Khashoggi’s death. Regional experts and U.S. lawmakers remain skeptical the operation would have been carried out without the crown prince’s approval.

The crown prince received a standing ovation on Tuesday during a brief appearance at an investment summit in Riyadh that was boycotted by many top officials and business leaders from around the world.

Updated: 6:17 p.m.