Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. (Source: Jamal Khashoggi/Twitter)

Trump Says He Opposes Blocking Saudi Arms Sales Over Khashoggi

(Bloomberg) -- President Donald Trump said Wednesday night that he did not want to block arms sales to Saudi Arabia over the disappearance of a Saudi journalist, a move that has been suggested by some who are demanding answers to the mystery.

“I think that would be hurting us. We have jobs, we have a lot of things happening in this country,” Trump said in a telephone interview with Fox News. “Frankly, I think that would be a very, very tough pill to swallow.”

Trump Says He Opposes Blocking Saudi Arms Sales Over Khashoggi

A bipartisan group of U.S. senators is forcing the Trump administration to investigate the disappearance of the journalist, Jamal Khashoggi, triggering a human rights probe that could result in sanctions against Saudi officials and entities.

In a letter to the president earlier on Wednesday, senators invoked the Global Magnitsky Act of 2016 to seek an investigation in the case of Khashoggi, who hasn’t been seen since he entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul last week. The move appears aimed at prompting a more active response from an administration that has been restrained in its reaction to Khashoggi’s disappearance.

The letter from lawmakers was signed by all members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee except for Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican. Paul is pushing Congress to block future arms sales to the kingdom.

In the Fox interview, Trump called the Khashoggi episode “a terrible thing and it certainly would not be a positive” for U.S.-Saudi relations. “It would certainly not be a good thing at all.”

The Washington Post, citing unnamed U.S. officials, reported on Wednesday night that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman had ordered the abduction of Khashoggi, a prominent critic of the royal family. The goal of the operation was to lure Khashoggi from the U.S., where he had been living, the newspaper reported, and bring him back to Saudi Arabia.

Trump Says He Opposes Blocking Saudi Arms Sales Over Khashoggi

“The recent disappearance of Saudi journalist and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi suggests that he could be a victim of a gross violation of internationally recognized human rights,” the letter said. “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.”

The Magnitsky Act gives the Trump administration 120 days to respond to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee with a decision on potential sanctions against officials responsible for human rights violations.

Lawmakers have been making increasingly strong statements regarding the U.S.-Saudi relationship this week after reports that the kingdom sought to silence one of its most outspoken critics. The fallout could reshape alliances in the region, where the U.S. is seeking to stabilize Syria, contain Iranian weapons development and support a Saudi-led coalition in Yemen’s civil war.

‘Demanding Everything’

Trump, speaking to reporters earlier on Wednesday in the Oval Office, said he had spoken “more than once” with Saudi officials in recent days but didn’t provide details of the conversations.

Trump said Khashoggi’s fiancée had sent him a letter and may come to the White House soon. “I’m not happy about it,” Trump said of Khashoggi’s disappearance. When asked whether he’s demanding answers from the Saudis, Trump said, “Yes, we are. We are demanding everything.”

A Turkish official, speaking anonymously and without providing evidence, said earlier this week that Khashoggi, a Global Opinions section columnist for the Post, was murdered inside the consulate, a claim the Saudi government has vehemently denied.

The Post quoted a Turkish official as saying authorities suspect a 15-member team killed the journalist at the consulate. U.S. intelligence intercepted communications of Saudi officials discussing a plan to capture Khashoggi before he vanished, according to the Post, which cited two people familiar with the information.

The Post report on Wednesday said that analysts and officials in several countries think that the operation in Istanbul was intended as an abduction, but may have gone wrong.

Trump Says He Opposes Blocking Saudi Arms Sales Over Khashoggi

Prince Mohammed told Bloomberg News in an interview last week that Khashoggi had left the consulate shortly after entering it last week and that he was ready to allow Turkey to search the building.

But the Post reported that the Saudis haven’t presented any evidence he left the building and say that their video cameras weren’t recording at the time. The newspaper also quoted an unidentified senior Turkish official as saying the Saudis weren’t allowing a proper investigation in the consulate.

Erdogan Involved

Khashoggi, who had been living in self-imposed exile for the past year, vanished on Oct. 2 after he entered the consulate to obtain a document. Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, said he was personally involved in the case, which threatens ties between Ankara and Riyadh.

Paul said he hopes Khashoggi’s disappearance “motivates everybody to reassess our kinship and everything we do with Saudi Arabia.” He added that he hopes Trump would support stronger measures against Saudi Arabia “if there is any evidence they killed this journalist.”

The Magnitsky Act is named for Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian lawyer who died in a Moscow prison after he reported tax fraud involving government officials. It has been used to punish Russian oligarchs and Turkish officials, to restrict the travel and freeze the assets of officials found to have violated human rights.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.