Saudi Arabia just admitted that the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi was “premeditated,” putting significant pressure on President Donald Trump to respond.
The country’s public prosecutor announced on Thursday morning that the kingdom reached this conclusion after receiving information from Turkey. Ankara has long claimed it had intelligence about what happened to Khashoggi after he entered Riyadh’s Istanbul consulate on October 2. Over the past few weeks, Turkey has leaked many of those details to local and international press as part of a pressure campaign to harm its regional rival.
“[T]he suspects in the incident had committed their act with a premeditated intention,” the Saudi attorney said. “The Public Prosecution continues its investigations with the accused in the light of what it has received and the results of its investigations to reach facts and complete the course of justice.”
The statement, carried in the state-run Saudi Press Agency, comes just hours after CIA Director Gina Haspel listened to audio of Khashoggi’s murder during a secret trip to Turkey. It’s possible that the kingdom wanted to get ahead of any official accusations from Washington in the coming days.
While many US government officials and analysts confidently assumed Riyadh organized the effort to kill Khashoggi, the kingdom’s reversal is no less stunning.
It denied any responsibility for the journalist’s disappearance for weeks, initially saying that he had exited the consulate through another entrance. Just last week, Riyadh said the 59-year-old writer died in a “fist fight” during an interrogation, an explanation that President Donald Trump called part of the “worst cover-up ever.”
Saudi officials have arrested 18 people, including Saud al-Qahtani, a close aide to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who US intelligence says likely knew about what happened to Khashoggi.
But there’s little expectation that the probe’s conclusions will be impartial, or that it will reprimand the crown prince, known as MBS, in any significant way. Meanwhile, Khashoggi’s body is still missing.
This is a big test for Trump
Trump has repeatedly said he doesn’t want to take any actions that could imperil lucrative arms sales to Riyadh that could be worth $110 billion. What’s more, he has noted that Khashoggi was a US resident, not a citizen, suggesting that his death doesn’t merit a stern response from America.
But last week, he told reporters that it “certainly looks” like Khashoggi is dead, and vowed “severe” consequences if Saudi royals were behind the killing. It’s unclear what, exactly, those reprimands might be. As of now, the US has only canceled Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin’s visit to a swanky Saudi conference this week and revoked the visas of 21 Saudi officials suspected of participating in the murder.
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, including Trump allies, have called for a change in the US-Saudi relationship. Some have openly blamed MBS, the kingdom’s de facto leader, for the crime.
“You’ll never convince me that he didn’t do this,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) said on Sunday. Trump hasn’t gone that far, but on Wednesday he said if anyone would know about what happened to Khashoggi, MBS would. “The prince runs things over there,” he added.
Should the US choose to downgrade its relationship with Saudi Arabia — the centerpiece of its Middle East strategy and greatest counterweight to Iran — it would prove a turning point in Trump’s foreign policy. Washington has steadfastly stood by the kingdom, despite its brutal war in Yemen and jailing of human rights activists.
That means all eyes will be on Trump in the coming hours and days as he formulates a response — and decides once and for all what he believes happened to Khashoggi.