By Steve Holland and Matt Spetalnick
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Six days after Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi disappeared, U.S. President Donald Trump tried to play down the crisis, saying “hopefully that will sort itself out”.
It did not, and on Oct. 10, amid a growing outcry, Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner and national security adviser John Bolton pressed Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, in what one U.S. official described as a “stern” phone call, to identify who was responsible for Khashoggi’s disappearance or death.
Trump then seemed to give Saudi Arabia the benefit of the doubt, suggesting “rogue killers” may have been to blame and criticizing a growing view that this was a case of state murder.
He changed his tone once again late this week, raising the prospect of sanctions against Riyadh.
But when Saudi Arabia finally admitted on Saturday that Khashoggi was dead, saying he was killed in a fight inside the consulate, Trump said the official explanation was “credible” even as Republican and Democratic lawmakers responded with anger and disbelief.
Over the last two weeks, Trump has at times spoken of punishing Saudi Arabia but appeared reluctant to follow through against a close economic and security ally in the Middle East, a key player in ensuring the stability of global oil markets, and a major customer of arms deals that he says are “tremendous”.
“Trump’s dug himself into a hole,” said Aaron David Miller, a former Middle East adviser to both Democratic and Republican administrations. “He will have to take some kind of action.”
Behind the scenes, though, Trump’s aides scrambled to craft a response, especially as the bipartisan outcry in the Washington establishment grew.
When news of Khashoggi’s disappearance first broke, aides made clear to White House chief of staff John Kelly that the case was not going away, two senior White House officials said.
Kushner, who had cultivated a close personal relationship with the crown prince, commonly known as MbS, urged Trump to act with caution to avoid upsetting a critical strategic and economic relationship, a senior administration official said.
Kushner was heavily involved in making Saudi Arabia Trump’s first stop on his maiden international trip as president last year.
As grim allegations emerged from Turkey about Khashoggi’s death and the Saudis stuck to their denials, Trump felt pressure from congressional Democrats and some of his own Republicans.
U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican close to Trump, accused MbS of ordering Khashoggi’s murder and called him a “wrecking ball” jeopardizing relations with the United States.
When Riyadh came out with its official version of what happened inside the consulate, Graham quickly tweeted he was “skeptical of the new Saudi narrative”.
‘NOT A U.S. CITIZEN’
Trump sought to justify his muted response by pointing out the incident occurred in Turkey and that Khashoggi, a U.S. resident and columnist for the Washington Post, was “not a United States citizen”.
Critics accused Trump of trying to give the Saudis diplomatic cover and buy time for them to get their story straight, something Trump’s aides denied.
At the same time, Peter Navarro, Trump’s White House trade chief and architect of his “Buy American” policy to ease restrictions on foreign arms sales, was stressing the importance of Saudi weapons deals and the implications for U.S. jobs, another administration official told Reuters.
Trump repeatedly touted the $110 billion in weapons deals he announced during his visit to Saudi Arabia last year, and insisted around 500,000 U.S. jobs were at stake. Experts have dismissed the sales and jobs numbers as highly exaggerated.
Some Trump aides raised doubts about the veracity of the Turkish government’s leaks of what it says happened to Khashoggi.
But as the days dragged on and evidence of Khashoggi’s death mounted, Trump’s view began to shift, White House officials said.
He ordered Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to drop what he was doing and fly to Riyadh for talks at mid-week, and was then briefed by him at the White House on Thursday.
Critics slammed Pompeo for appearing to hold court in a festive manner with MbS, undercutting the severity of the U.S. message.
But one senior White House official countered, saying Pompeo told the Saudi royals that “you need to give us some legitimate information soon, people aren’t just going to let it drag on.’”
Speaking to reporters during a trip to Arizona on Friday, Trump said he was ready to “listen to what Congress has to say” about actions to be taken in the Khashoggi case, yet also made clear he wanted to continue to protect defense contracts, and U.S. jobs dependent on them.
Congress has already triggered a mechanism for the U.S. Treasury Department to consider human rights sanctions against Saudi Arabia and some lawmakers have vowed to block further arms sales to Riyadh, a move that Trump is likely to oppose.
(Reporting By Matt Spetalnick and Steve Holland, additional reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Yara Bayoumy, Tomasz Janowski and Angus MacSwan)