Trump Has Rejected Calls to Halt Saudi Arms Sales Over Journalist's Disappearance. But Congress Could Force His Hand

The disappearance and possible murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi is putting major strain on the relationship between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia. Now, members of Congress across party lines are pushing for an end to arms sales to Riyadh — a $110 billion business President Donald J. Trump is loathe to leave on the table.

Khashoggi, a frequent critic of the Saudi Arabian government, was last seen entering his country’s consulate in Istanbul earlier this month. The Washington Post reports Turkish officials have audio and video recordings that prove Khashoggi was murdered inside the consulate, and that U.S. intelligence intercepted communication discussing a plan by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to lure the journalist from his home in Virginia back to Saudi Arabia to detain him.

In a letter this week, a handful of senators on both sides of the aisle urged Trump to investigate Khashoggi’s disappearance and sanction those responsible, even if they are in the Saudi government, invoking a provision of the 2016 Magnitsky act. it requires the president to determine within four months whether an extrajudicial killing has occurred against any individual who promotes human rights, such as a journalist. If an assassination is found to have occurred, the law requires the president to consider sanctions on individuals complicit in the death, including freezing their assets and banning them from entering the U.S.

Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut and Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky fell four votes short of blocking a Saudi weapons deal last year. Murphy believes they would fare better this time around. He told Politico he plans to introduce a resolution of disapproval the next time an arms sale is announced, which Murphy expects in the next two months.

South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, said that if it turns out the Saudis were responsible for Khashoggi’s death, there would be “hell to pay.” Retiring Republican Sen. Orrin G. Hatch of Utah was more forgiving. “Our relationship with the Saudis is very important, and we have to be very careful about it,” he told Roll Call. “We have to see who is responsible.”

The Trump administration says it is giving the disappearance high-level attention, but as NPR points out, the U.S. has no ambassador in Saudi Arabia or Turkey. And Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, has close ties with bin Salman.

When asked at a press briefing Thursday about whether Khashoggi’s disappearance would affect U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia, Trump said, “I don’t like the concept of stopping an investment of $110 billion into the United States. Because you know what they’re going to do? They’re going to take that money and spend it in Russia or China, or someplace else. So I think there are other ways. If it turns out to be as bad as it might be, there are certainly other ways of handling the situation.”

The New York Times reports Saudi Arabia’s arms purchases from the U.S. have fallen far short of the $110 billion Kushner promised, partly because of congressional resistance and partly because the price was exaggerated.