That’s still an if, Donald Trump tells Lesley Stahl on an upcoming segment of 60 Minutes, even if it’s not in most minds by now. The Saudis deny murdering Jamal Khashoggi “in every way you can imagine,” Trump says after Stahl asks the president about the conversation between Jared Kushner and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. However, Trump insists that the US is fully engaged on getting answers, and that the Saudis can expect “severe punishment” if they murdered Khashoggi.
Especially, Trump adds, because Khashoggi was a reporter. “You’ll be surprised to hear me say that,” he tells Stahl:
"There will be severe punishment." In his first 60 Minutes interview since taking office, President Trump tells Lesley Stahl that if Saudi Arabia is found to be responsible for journalist Jamal Khashoggi's death, there will be consequences. https://t.co/BRZfIPHbNY pic.twitter.com/s6X98AylBR
— 60 Minutes (@60Minutes) October 13, 2018
President Donald Trump said in an interview with 60 Minutes that the Saudis could be behind the disappearance of missing journalist and Washington Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi, and if so, the U.S. would inflict “severe punishment.” In a clip broadcast on “CBS This Morning,” Mr. Trump said there is a lot at stake “and maybe especially so because this man was a reporter.” …
“There’s a lot at stake,” Mr. Trump continued. “And, maybe especially so because this man was a reporter. There’s something, you’ll be surprised to hear me say that, there’s something really terrible and disgusting about that if that was the case.”
This sounds ominous for the Saudis, but some may be inclined to dismiss it as bluster, especially with the caveat of proving the allegation. Trump has spent the last two years casting doubt on Russian interference, his critics will say. That’s true … rhetorically, and sometimes embarrassingly so. All Trump has to do to avoid acting is insist that there isn’t enough evidence for that conclusion.
Actions do speak louder than words, though, and Trump has also imposed serious-to-severe diplomatic and economic sanctions on Russia. Some were aimed at the Russian-interference campaign, but Trump expanded them greatly after Russia’s own assassination attempt against Sergei Skripal in the UK. Trump landed foursquare on Russian responsibility for that shocking attack, and that precedent comes much closer to the Khashoggi disappearance than does election interference. Khashoggi’s status as both a reporter and a US resident raises the stakes considerably on that precedent too, as it should.
So perhaps Trump is warning the Saudis as to what will be coming. It won’t, however, take the form of cutting off arms sales. Trump essentially tells Stahl that he won’t cut off America’s nose to spite its face:
When asked what kind of punishments he may pursue if Saudi Arabia is found to be behind the disappearance, Mr. Trump wouldn’t commit to sanctions or cutting sales of military equipment to Saudi from American companies.
“I’ll tell you what I don’t want to do,” Mr. Trump said, “I don’t want to hurt jobs. I don’t want to lose an order like that. And you know what, there are other ways of punishing.”
Trump talks about the loss of American jobs, but it’s more about the loss of American influence. The US needs the Saudis as a counterweight to Iran, especially now that Turkey has moved significantly into the orbit of Russia and even Tehran. We can’t afford to let the Saudis drift away at the same time, which limits our options. If the Russians co-opt the Saudis too, we may as well pack up and depart the whole region, which would leave Israel in a very, very bad position. The punishment, whatever it may be, will have to be more personal and less public than perhaps most would want for such an awful crime.
Assuming, of course, that the Saudis did it. They’re denying it “vehemently,” according to AFP:
Saudi insists Khashoggi, a Washington Post contributor whose writings have been critical of powerful Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, left the building safely but has yet to offer visual evidence of this. …
The Saudi delegation was in Turkey and due to have talks this weekend in Ankara and take part in a working group on the disappearance, official Turkish media said. The NTV channel said the 11 person delegation had on Friday inspected the consulate in Istanbul.
Riyadh has warmly welcomed the creation of the working group but Interior Minister Prince Abdel Aziz bin Saud bin Nayef slammed claims that the kingdom ordered Khashoggi to be killed inside the consulate. He described the allegations as “baseless allegations and lies”.
Interestingly, the Turks seem to want to dial down the “sensationalism” surrounding Khashoggi’s disappearance:
The spokesman of Erdogan’s ruling party, Omer Celik, acknowledged Saturday that there were “extremely sensational claims” about Khashoggi’s fate in the media and said there would be “severe consequences” for anyone found responsible if they were true.
“Far from the speculation, work is being carried out in the most sensitive way to find out what happened,” he said in televised comments.
AFP notes that Turkey wants the US on its side over the Khashoggi case. That may explain why Pastor Andrew Brunson won his release yesterday after prosecutors ‘recommended’ time served as a punishment for bogus charges of terror support. Trump, who will meet with Brunson at the White House today, denies any deal took place at all:
There was NO DEAL made with Turkey for the release and return of Pastor Andrew Brunson. I don’t make deals for hostages. There was, however, great appreciation on behalf of the United States, which will lead to good, perhaps great, relations between the United States & Turkey!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 13, 2018
No deal from the deal-making president? Hmmmm. That might worry the Saudis more than Trump’s declaration on 60 Minutes. The US has plenty of ways to get even with Salman if necessary, and in very personal ways if Trump so chooses.
Update, 10/15: I misspelled Lesley Stahl’s first name as Leslie in the initial version of this post. I have corrected it today, and offer my apologies to her.