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Jamal Khashoggi mystery risks U.S.-Saudi relations

October 14, 2018 GMT

Congressional pressure is mounting for a full rethink of U.S. relations with Saudi Arabia as evidence grows that the kingdom, a longtime American ally, was responsible for the disappearance of, and increasingly likely the death of, a Washington Post journalist.

President Trump has said he is trying to gather facts and has warned of consequences, but Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill are far ahead of him. They are promising to force votes on economic sanctions and on denying military assistance to the Saudi war effort in nearby Yemen.

Some Democrats have even hinted that the Trump administration bungled the disappearance. A letter being circulated among congressional Democrats demands that the U.S. intelligence community reveal whether it knew of Saudi efforts to move against Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi citizen and permanent U.S. resident.

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The Saudi government warned Sunday that it will not stand for any retribution.

“The kingdom affirms its total rejection of any threats and attempts to undermine it, whether by threatening to impose economic sanctions, using political pressures or repeating false accusations,” the state-run Saudi Press Agency said in a statement.

The Saudi government has denied involvement in the disappearance of Mr. Khashoggi after he entered the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul.

Yet Saudi officials have not offered any evidence to back up their denials, and Turkish authorities reportedly have evidence that points to Mr. Khashoggi’s death in the consulate. They have released camera footage of Mr. Khashoggi entering the consulate and say there is no record of him leaving.

The Saudis’ silence, as much as the accusations themselves, are not sitting well with Congress.

Sen. Richard J. Durbin, Illinois Democrat, said he spoke over the weekend with Khalid bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, the kingdom’s ambassador to the U.S., and was not pleased with the lack of an explanation for Mr. Khashoggi’s disappearance.

“I told Ambassador bin Salman that he should expect a very negative response from both sides of the aisle in Congress if Mr. Khashoggi was in fact kidnapped and murdered,” said Mr. Durbin, the second-ranking Democrat in the Senate.

“If that is the case, I do not believe the U.S. should continue to be party to supporting the Saudis in the bloodshed in Yemen a halt that is long overdue given the humanitarian disaster resulting from that conflict,” Mr. Durbin said.

Sen. Marco Rubio, Florida Democrat, said Treasury Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin should cancel an upcoming trip to a finance conference in Saudi Arabia.

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“I don’t think he should go,” Mr. Rubio said on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “I don’t think any of our government officials should be going and pretending it’s business as usual until we know what’s happened here.”

Mr. Rubio said Congress would respond strongly no matter how the administration reacts.

Several Democrats worried that the U.S. government may even bear some blame.

Rep. Mark Pocan of Wisconsin and Rep. Ro Khanna of California are asking colleagues to sign a letter demanding that the U.S. intelligence community reveal whether it learned of the plans and whether it warned Mr. Khashoggi.

“Considering the profound ramifications of this potential crime, U.S. foreknowledge of Saudi plans to detain Mr. Khashoggi, and whether the U.S. intelligence community carried out its duty to warn, we intend to use the full force of congressional oversight and investigatory powers to obtain these answers should they not be forthcoming,” the lawmakers say in a draft of their letter to Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats.

Mr. Khashoggi, who once was considered close to the Saudi royal family, became a critic of the government and Crown Prince Mohammed, the 33-year-old heir apparent who has shown little tolerance for criticism.

As a journalist, Mr. Khashoggi has written extensively about Saudi Arabia, including criticism of its war in Yemen, its recent diplomatic spat with Canada and its arrest of women’s rights activists after the lifting of a ban on women driving.

Those policies are all seen as initiatives of the crown prince, who has also presided over a roundup of activists and businessmen.

Mr. Trump has repeatedly criticized Saudi Arabia and King Salman over rising global oil prices. Benchmark Brent crude now trades above $80, and U.S. gasoline prices have risen ahead of midterm elections.

Mr. Trump suggested this month that Saudi Arabia’s king “might not be there for two weeks” without U.S. military support.

He said Friday that he will likely be calling King Salman to hear his version of events surrounding Mr. Khashoggi.

In its statement Sunday, the Saudi government suggested any retaliation would spark a global financial crisis.

“The kingdom also affirms that if it receives any action, it will respond with greater action, and that the kingdom’s economy has an influential and vital role in the global economy,” the government statement said.