The disappearance of Jamal Khashoggi raises concerns in the United States – where he was a longtime resident – with senators calling President Donald Trump to intensify efforts for a resolution of the mystery.
On Wednesday, 22 U.S. senators signed a letter to Trump triggering a U.S. investigation and determination of whether human rights sanctions should be imposed over Khashoggi's disappearance.
In the letter, the senators said they had triggered a provision of the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act requiring the president to determine whether a foreign person is responsible for a gross human rights violation.
"Our expectation is that in making your determination you will consider any relevant information, including with respect to the highest ranking officials in the Government of Saudi Arabia," they said.
Earlier Wednesday, Senator Tim Kaine joined the growing list of senators urging the Trump administration to raise the case with Saudi Arabia.
"Jamal Khashoggi is a Virginia resident, so his disappearance is personal to me. President Trump needs to raise this case immediately with Saudi Arabia and Turkey and demand answers. We should be extending support from our federal agencies for a real investigation," the senator tweeted.
Claims that the well-known Saudi writer and government critic was slain inside his country's diplomatic mission in Turkey have put the Trump administration in a delicate spot.
Khashoggi had apparently drawn the wrath of the Saudi government, which has become an ever-closer U.S. ally during the Trump administration.
Angry lawmakers likely won't cause the administration to turn away from Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. But they could throw a wrench into arms sales that require their approval and demand the U.S. scale back support for the Saudi military campaign against Iran-backed rebels in Yemen.
Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina has warned that if there was any truth to the allegations of wrongdoing by the Saudi government, it would be "devastating" to the U.S.-Saudi relationship. Sens. Chris Coons, D-Del., and Thom Tillis, R-N.C., said the disappearance of the journalist sends a "chilling message" and called for the Saudis to "immediately investigate and verify Jamal's location."
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., a longtime critic of the Saudi government, went further. He said he'll try to force a vote in the Senate this week blocking U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia. He told local radio in his home state that he wants to end the arms shipments if there's "any indication" the Saudis are "implicated in killing this journalist that was critical of them."
Saudi Arabia denies involvement in Khashoggi's disappearance, and the Trump's administration's response has been far more cautious than that coming from Capitol Hill.
The administration has expressed concern but has refused to even to entertain questions about what the consequences would be if allegations turn out to be true — that the 59-year-old journalist was killed inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul after entering it on Oct. 2 to get routine paperwork for his marriage while his Turkish fiancee waited outside.
"We don't know what has happened to him. We don't have any information on that," State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert told reporters Tuesday. "That's why I want to say, we don't want to make any judgments about what happened, and we call for a thorough and transparent investigation."
The Trump administration is left with an awkward lack of information about a widely respected writer who had been living in self-imposed exile in the U.S. for the past year after fleeing a crackdown on intellectuals and activists in Saudi Arabia. Nauert said Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and other U.S. diplomats have been engaged on the issue and that Trump himself — he said Tuesday he "knows nothing" about what happened to Khashoggi — intends to speak to the Saudis.
Khashoggi's fiancée asked Trump and first lady Melania Trump to "help shed light" on his disappearance, writing in a column Wednesday in The Washington Post that she remains confident he is still alive while acknowledging "my hope slowly fades away each passing day."
"I also urge Saudi Arabia, especially King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, to show the same level of sensitivity and release CCTV footage from the consulate," wrote Hatice Cengiz, who lives in Istanbul.
The Trump administration, from the president on down, is heavily invested in the Saudi relationship. Robin Wright, a scholar at the Wilson Center think tank and close friend of the missing writer, said that's unlikely to change. The administration's Middle East agenda heavily depends on the Saudis, including efforts to counter Iranian influence in the region, fight extremism and build support for its yet-to-be-released plan for peace between Israel and the Palestinians.
Indication of those stakes came within four months of Trump taking office, when Saudi Arabia became his first destination on a presidential trip and he announced $110 billion in proposed arms sales. Trump heaped praise on Prince Mohammed when he made a three-week visit to the U.S. last March, saying the Saudi king had made a "very wise decision" in choosing the prince to succeed him.
Prince Mohammed, who has ties to Trump's son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, has introduced some economic and social reforms, allowing women to drive and opening movie theaters in the deeply conservative Muslim nation. The flip side, however, is that he's also squelched dissent and demonstrated a thin skin when faced with international criticism. He's also championed the destructive three-year military campaign against Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen that has pushed that nation toward famine and caused many civilian deaths.
Still, the Trump administration last month stood behind its support for that campaign with weaponry, logistics and intelligence, certifying that the Saudis were taken adequate steps to prevent civilian despite mounting evidence to the contrary.
Karen Elliott House, a veteran writer on Saudi affairs and chair of the board of trustees at RAND Corp., said U.S. support for the Yemen war is likely to be the focus of congressional criticism but won't endanger a relationship that has endured for decades, underpinned by shared strategic interests. Even under the Obama administration, which had difficult relations with Riyadh compared with Trump, there were some $65 billion in completed arms sales.
"The U.S.-Saudi relationship is certainly not about shared moral values," House said. "It's about shared security interests."