WASHINGTON – A bipartisan group of 20 senators forced President Donald Trump on Wednesday to open an investigation into the fate of Jamal Khashoggi – a Saudi journalist and U.S. resident who has been missing for more than a week and is now at the center of a diplomatic firestorm.
Saying they fear Khashoggi could be the victim of “a gross violation of internationally recognized human rights," the lawmakers used a 2012 sanctions law to trigger a White House probe into the situation.
Sens. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., and Bob Menendez, D-N.J., the chairman and ranking members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, led the effort. They were joined by 18 other lawmakers from both parties – all pressing Trump to be more aggressive in determining what happened to Khashoggi.
In a letter requesting the investigation, the senators said they expected the president to “consider all relevant information,” including whether high-ranking officials in the Saudi Arabian government were involved in extrajudicial killing, torture, or abduction of Khashoggi. Under the 2012 law, if any foreign actor is found responsible for human-rights violations against him, it could trigger sanctions against that individual or that country.
A State Department spokesman said Wednesday the United States had no prior knowledge that Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist and U.S. resident, was in danger of being apprehended or harmed by the Saudi Arabian government.
“Although I cannot comment on intelligence matters, I can say definitively the United states had no advanced knowledge of Jamal Khashoggi’s disappearance,” Robert Palladino, a deputy state department spokesman, told reporters Wednesday.
His comments came after the Washington Post reported that U.S. intelligence officials had intercepted communications of Saudi officials “discussing a plan to capture him.”
The Post further reported on Wednesday that the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman, was directly involved – ordering an operation to "lure" Khashoggi back to Saudi Arabia and detain him there.
On Thursday, NBC News reported that Khashoggi checked his cellphone just before entering the Saudi consulate. But he never read messages sent to him minutes later. NBC News obtained screenshots of messages sent to Khashoggi via WhatsApp, which display the details of when a message is delivered, read or played by the recipient. The detail appears to corroborate the timeline of his disappearance.
Palladino defended the Trump administration’s handling of the case, even as lawmakers in both parties demanded a further accounting of Khashoggi’s fate and suggested that America’s close relationship with Saudi Arabia could be significantly damaged by his disappearance.
More than a week ago, Khashoggi entered Saudi Arabia’s consulate in Turkey for some routine paperwork. Khashoggi, a critic of the Saudi regime living in self-imposed exile in the U.S., has not been seen since.
Turkish officials allege he was killed in the compound; Saudi officials say he left the building unharmed.Trump administration officials waited until Tuesday before commenting on the situation, and they have not accused Saudi Arabia – a key U.S. ally – of any malfeasance.
The president said Wednesday he had spoken with Saudi Arabian leaders “at the highest levels” about Khashoggi’s disappearance.
“This is a bad situation. We cannot let this happen to reporters, to anybody,” Trump said. “We can’t let this happen and we’re going to get to the bottom of it.”
Palladino said Trump’s National Security Adviser John Bolton and Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner both spoke with Saudi's Crown Prince about the situation – and that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made a follow-up call as well.
He declined to say whether any of those calls produced satisfactory answers from the Saudis, citing the private nature of diplomatic conversations.
In Congress, however, lawmakers expressed increasing dissatisfaction with the situation.
“If the horrific allegations of what occurred are accurate, this episode must dramatically recast the U.S.-Saudi relationship,” said Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., the ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee. Schiff said he and others on the panel had a “preliminary briefing” on Khashoggi’s disappearance.
“President Trump’s tepid statements of concern do not begin to match the gravity of the situation,” Schiff added, urging the Trump administration must “demand answers” from the Saudis.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. said there would be “hell to pay” if the Saudis were found to have murdered a U.S. resident. He also signed the Corker-Menendez letter along with Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont.
“I’ve never been more disturbed than I am right now,” Graham told a CBS News reporter. “If this did, in fact, happen, if this man was murdered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, that would cross every line of normality in the international community.”
The Trump administration has cultivated close ties with the crown prince. And Trump has touted the Saudi Arabian government's promise to buy "lots of beautiful military equipment" from the U.S.
Palladino was pressed to say how the U.S.-Saudi relationship would be affected if the allegations of Khashoggi's murder were proven true.
"We’re not going to engage in hypothetical questions," he responded. "We don’t want to prejudge anything."
A surveillance video image that surfaced Tuesday shows Khashoggi entering the consulate, but there are no images of him coming back out. His fiancée, Hatice Cengiz, who was waiting outside for him, says she has not heard anything from him since he went into the consulate on Oct. 2.
Turkish media on Wednesday published the names of 15 Saudi nationals who traveled to Istanbul the day Khashoggi disappeared. One of the individuals is the head of a forensic department in Saudi Arabia's intelligence services. Others appear to be Saudi agents of one kind or another, according to Turkey's Sabah newspaper.
The Chief Public Prosecutor’s Office in Istanbul opened a formal investigation into Khashoggi’s disappearance, according to the state-run Turkish news agency, which also reported that Turkish police said Khashoggi had not left the building after entering it. The news agency, quoting unnamed sources, reported that the day Khashoggi disappeared, the 15 Saudi nationals visited the consulate and then left the country.
On Tuesday, Khashoggi’s fiancée appealed to President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump to directly intervene in the worrying case to “help shed light” on his disappearance. Writing in the Washington Post’s opinion section, Hatice Cengiz “implored” the Trumps to get involved. She also urged “Saudi Arabia, especially King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, to show the same level of sensitivity and release CCTV footage from the consulate.”
Contributing: Kim Hjelmgaard