Two years ago today, Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi was brutally tortured and dismembered by members of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s guard. Yet still, 730 days later, the Trump administration has refused to send Congress an official assessment of intelligence findings that satisfies the bulk of lawmakers in either party. Instead, the administration has been focused on increasing arms sales to the regime.
While there’s anger from some Republicans over the sustained intelligence blockade, the Democratic side of the aisle is boiling mad about Trump’s continuing deference to the Saudis and promising a swift change in the relationship between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia if Joe Biden wins the election.
“I think this will be one of the biggest foreign policy shifts our country will see,” Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) told VICE News outside the Capitol. “There's going to be accountability for the war in Yemen and for the brutal murder of Khashoggi.” Khashoggi, a Saudi dissident who’d been critical of the Saudi government, was assassinated at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2, 2018.
Thus far, there’s been no accountability. The Saudis have been arresting their own domestic journalists since the killing, and Trump vetoed a bipartisan bill to cut off arms sales to the regime last summer. He’s even implied he’s not that concerned if the crown prince played a role in the assassination because Saudi Arabia is an important U.S. ally that buys our weapons. The administration is even considering allowing the G-20 summit, set for Nov. 20, to be hosted in Saudi Arabia.
“The administration has made up their mind: They are never going to hold Saudi Arabia accountable,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) told VICE News in the Capitol. “In fact, they are asking for permission to send even more weapons to the Saudis and their partners.”
In the face of loud international criticism over Khashoggi’s death, the Saudis have taken some actions, but critics say it’s all been smoke and mirrors. At the start of last year, Saudi prosecutors brought charges against 11 people for the killing. Five of those individuals were sentenced to death, but the proceedings were all conducted behind closed doors. That secrecy led many human rights groups to decry them. And they weren’t alone.
The verdict was "not acceptable," according to Khashoggi's fiancée, Hatice Cengiz in a BBC report following the trial.
Before the trials, a bipartisan group of lawmakers came together to try and force the Trump administration to disclose what the U.S. intelligence community knew of the brutal slaughter. The effort came from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee under its former chair, Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), who is no longer in office and wasn’t available for an interview.
The bipartisan effort relied on the Global Magnitsky Act, which is intended to make it easier to levy sanctions against human rights abusers. That law, which was signed by former President Obama in 2016, also requires all occupants of the White House to send Congress an intelligence report within 30 days of the act being invoked.
Based on that reading of the law — which is written explicitly into the law — the White House should have sent lawmakers that report by February of 2019. But members of both parties still haven’t gotten it. And Corker’s replacement as Senate Foreign Relations Committee chair, Trump-ally Sen. Jim Risch (R-Idaho), refused to comment.
“I don’t want to say anything at the moment,” a disturbed Risch told Vice News while walking under the Capitol. When we pressed and asked, ”You don’t want to talk about the death of an American journalist?” he only grimaced.
Other Republicans who aren’t helping the administration craft its foreign policy are more willing to talk, because unlike Risch, most of them still want answers.
“We want to know what happened, how it happened, what do we know? What's been the reaction? Obviously those are all legitimate questions,” Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) told VICE News.
Still, Lankford won’t criticize the president or his administration.
“I don't know that they haven't been forthcoming. There's a lot of questions still — that's been globally — hanging out there. So this is not just an American issue, obviously,” Lankford said.
As for Democrats, the recent reports of Trump’s tax returns – and the mounds of personal debt revealed in them — only intensify concern that Trump is compromised.
“Someday we'll figure out the nature of this bizarrely cozy relationship between the Saudis and the Trump family,” Murphy said.
“One of our worries upon seeing these tax returns is that the president clearly is going to have to make a ton of money in his post-presidency years to pay back these loans that are about to come due,” Murphy added. “I'm sure he's relying on the Saudis to step up.”
The White House refused comment.
“There's going to be a million different policies that Joe Biden is going to have to reverse including our abdication of leadership on freedom of press and human rights. The Saudis will likely be in for a rough awakening in a new administration. They’ve literally gotten away with murder.”
It's not just the rank and file. Even Democratic leaders are bewildered and angry.
“It's just an awful thing that the administration has not made it very clear to the Saudis that they have not dealt with this in a way that's appropriate,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) told VICE News after leaving the Capitol, flanked by his security detail. “Frankly, we ought not to be dealing with the Saudis as if they were on the up-and-up.”