Trump Administration Mulls Punishment for Saudi Leaders Involved in Jamal Khashoggi’s Death
‘There’s no doubt the Trump administration will do something to punish Saudi Arabia, the question if whether the measures we choose will be enough,’ an official said.
Senior officials inside the State and Treasury departments are actively discussing plans to exact financial punishment on Saudi Arabia for its role in the alleged murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, according to three people involved in the discussions. The measures, which may include sanctions against the kingdom’s top leaders, could come down the pipeline as early as this week, officials told The Daily Beast.
Staffers and officials, including Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, have met continuously over the course of the last week in an attempt to detail the possible ways the U.S. could punish the kingdom without negatively impacting the U.S.’s $110 billion Saudi arms deal. President Donald Trump has so far resisted calls by some lawmakers to halt U.S. military aid to Saudi Arabia in light of Khashoggi’s disappearance, arguing that nixing the arms deals would hurt American jobs.
“The real trick here is going to be finding a way to take a public stand against the leaders of Saudi while at the same time preserving the financial relationship we have with them,” said one official involved in the meetings. “At the end of the day, people are trying to decide whether to view the crown prince as a separate issue that we can sideline or whether his presence and rule is engrained in the ethos of the country.”
The meetings come amid swirling speculation, in part spurred by Trump, that rogue actors from within the Saudi intelligence community killed Khashoggi inside its consulate in Istanbul during an interrogation session that went awry.
Pompeo, who was dispatched to Riyadh Monday, met with King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman but did not announce new details on the investigation currently underway by both Saudi and Turkish officials.
As Trump awaits more information about how Khashoggi apparently died, Washington lobbying firms have begun to drop Saudi Arabia as a client—an unprecedented move given the country’s extensive cash flow and decades of partnerships with K Street lobbyists. Influential think tanks have also issued statements condemning the kingdom for its role in Khashoggi’s disappearance. The flurry of announcements comes as Turkish state-owned media continues to disseminate information about how Saudi intelligence officers allegedly killed Khashoggi. It is unclear from those reports how much of the Turkish intelligence is accurate and if the evidence has been doctored. In addition, the Saudis themselves are in the process of drafting a report that acknowledges their intelligence officers were involved in Khashoggi’s death.
The State Department could not be reached for comment about potential sanctions. A Treasury spokesperson declined to give details to The Daily Beast but said the department would be evaluating the information that comes out of the investigation this week.
On Capitol Hill, lawmakers and their aides have also been consulting with Treasury officials about potential punishments, according to two sources familiar with the conversations.
The Global Magnitsky Act appears to be the most likely conduit for the Trump administration’s actions targeting Saudi Arabia. The law, passed in 2016, slaps sanctions on human-rights abusers by, among other things, freezing their assets and banning their visas.
Last week, Sens. Bob Corker (R-TN) and Bob Menendez (D-NJ), the chairman and ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, triggered an investigation into Khashoggi’s disappearance under the act. The administration has 120 days to determine, based on that investigation, whether it will sanction Saudi Arabia.
Officials told The Daily Beast that one of the individuals who could be hit with the measures is the crown prince himself—a close friend of Jared Kushner and a leader whom the Trump administration has viewed as a progressive reformer.
On Fox and Friends Monday morning, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) described the crown prince, known as MBS, as “a wrecking ball.”
“He had [Khashoggi] murdered... the MBS figure is toxic,” Graham said. “He can never be a world leader. This guy's got to go. Saudi Arabia, if you’re listening, MBS has tainted your country.”
Some lawmakers have been openly skeptical about whether the Trump administration will actually impose sanctions. Some Democrats have already discussed ways to force the administration’s hand legislatively, according to aides familiar with the discussions. Others have vowed to introduce measures that would block future arms deals between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia. Under law, the Senate has the power to block any arms sale within 30 days of the administration proposing one.
One official inside the meetings between the State and Treasury departments said the U.S. could also implement the Leahy amendments—laws that prohibit the State and Defense departments from providing military assistance to foreign security-force units that violate human rights.
“There’s no doubt the Trump administration will do something to punish Saudi Arabia,” one official in the State Department said. “The question is whether the measures we choose will be enough.”