The US move signals how quickly the crisis over the fate of Khashoggi, a Saudi citizen and U.S. resident who wrote critically of the kingdom’s leaders, is threatening to damage US-Saudi relations. Khashoggi was last seen entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2. Turkish officials have said they believe he was killed and dismembered inside.
Trump said King Salman issued a “flat denial” that Saudi Arabia killed Khashoggi during a 20-minute call.
“All I can do is report what he told me,” Trump told reporters. “The king certainly denied any knowledge of it,” the president added, saying that Pompeo would depart “within an hour or so.”
Trump has built much of his Middle East policy around his close alliance with Saudi Arabia, the first foreign country he visited after taking office in 2017. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has twice visited the president in the Oval Office, most recently in March to kick off a glitzy investment tour of the US that included stops on Wall Street and Hollywood.
Despite increasing pressure from Congress, Trump said he’s reluctant to cancel multibillion-dollar arms sales to the kingdom out of concern the U.S. ally will turn to Russia or China instead. But a range of other punishments are under discussion within the administration, from downgrading diplomatic relations or sanctioning Saudi officials to following major U.S. companies in withdrawing officials from an investment conference in Riyadh this month.
White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow warned Sunday of “stern action” by Trump if Saudi Arabia is found responsible for Khashoggi’s disappearance. “If the Saudis are involved, if Khashoggi was killed or harmed or whatever bad outcome here, he will take action. That has been his strategy. Believe what he says,” Kudlow said on “Fox News Sunday.”
Saudi Arabia, the world’s biggest oil exporter, said on Sunday it would retaliate against any punitive measures with even “stronger ones,” according to a statement carried by the official Saudi Press Agency. In a reference to the kingdom’s oil wealth, the statement noted how the Saudi economy “has an influential and vital role in the global economy.”
The Saudi ambassador left Washington last week to return to Riyadh, and one U.S. official said he was instructed by Pompeo and National Security Adviser John Bolton to return to the US with answers about Khashoggi’s disappearance.
Trump is under mounting pressure from Congress. Several Republicans have said arms sales should be curtailed, and Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, the Republican chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, said last week that he had warned the Saudis that their relationship with the US risked collapsing.
On Sunday, Florida Senator Marco Rubio, another member of the Foreign Relations panel, said that Trump risked sacrificing the moral high ground with other misbehaving foreign leaders.
“If this is proven to be true, there is going to be a response from Congress. It’s going to be nearly unanimous. It’s going to be swift. And it’s going to go pretty far,” Rubio added.