The CIA’s conclusion that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman personally ordered the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul last month has ramped up pressure on the Trump administration to distance itself from the US’s longstanding Middle Eastern ally.
On Thursday, Saudi authorities announced 11 nationals had been indicted in connection with the murder, with five facing the death penalty.
Just hours later, in what seemed like a coordinated diplomatic effort, the Trump administration announced sanctions against 21 Saudi officials.
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CNN’s Angela Dewan says “the timing of the two courses of action was surely no coincidence. It seems both parties were hoping their responses together would shield the Crown Prince from growing accusations of involvement”.
This has been shattered by the CIA’s findings, the first US government assessment linking bin Salman to the dissident Saudi’s death, which have been described by The Observer as “the most damaging blow yet to the de facto Saudi leader, officially placing him at the heart of a scandal that continues to shake the region”.
A European intelligence official told the paper the findings from a top intelligence agency was “highly damaging to the kingdom’s official narrative”.
The agency's explosive assessment “makes Riyadh's repeated denials that bin Salman was connected to Khashoggi's death much harder to swallow, and if it's true, the development may be a major blow to the special relationship Trump has fostered with the Saudi royals”, says Dewan.
For now, Trump is sticking by his Middle Eastern ally. Doubling down on his belief the crown prince is innocent, he said he had been “told that he did not play a role” and that the country had been “a truly spectacular ally”.
“They give us a lot of jobs, they give us a lot of business, a lot of economic development,” he told reporters on Saturday.
Trump also said the CIA assessment was “very premature” and in an interview that aired on Sunday added it may never be possible to know who ordered Khashoggi’s murder.
The latest official reports from Turkey suggest that the killers of Khashoggi may have taken his dismembered body out of the country in luggage.
Trump has said there is “no reason” for him to listen to a recording of the murder provided by Turkey, but Reuters reports the president “faces intense pressure from senior Democratic and Republican lawmakers to take tougher action against Saudi Arabia”.
Republican senator and Trump ally, Lindsey Graham said on Sunday he had no doubt about bin Salman’s involvement in ordering the murder of Khashoggi.
“They are an important ally but when it comes to the crown prince, he’s irrational, he’s unhinged and I think he’s done a lot of damage to the relationship (between) the United States and Saudi Arabia. And I have no intention of working with him ever again,” he said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
Some have said the United States should suspend arms sales to the kingdom and drop its support for bin Salman, but Trump has so far resisted that pressure.
The president has announced there will be a government report tomorrow assessing the details and impact of the killing and possible options for a US response.
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