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How the U.S. should respond to Jamal Khashoggi’s disappearance

As details of journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s disappearance emerge, some business leaders are protesting the Saudi government by pulling out of an upcoming summit. Meanwhile, lawmakers are urging President Trump to take decisive action. Foreign affairs correspondent Nick Schifrin talks to Robert Jordan, former ambassador to Saudi Arabia, for his perspective on the incident and the response.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    We return now to a story that has been in the headlines all week, the disappearance of a Saudi Arabian journalist in Istanbul, Turkey.

    According to reports, it is suspected that he was murdered, literally cut in pieces, and smuggled out of Turkey by Saudi security forces.

    Nick Schifrin has the story.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Nine days after Jamal Khashoggi walked into the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, U.S. and Turkish officials are increasing pressure on Saudi Arabia.

    CCTV images on state-owned media show how Turkey is piecing together the steps taken by what Turkish officials call a Saudi hit squad, the team arriving at their hotel, riding the elevator, walking out and driving away in a black car.

    Then, fewer than two hours after Khashoggi arrived, that same black car and a black van leave the consulate for the consul general's house. Investigators are asking whether he was in that van and whether he was alive.

    Saudi officials promise to open their consulate to investigators and have agreed to a joint investigation with Turkey.

    In the White House today, President Trump called the Saudis out.

  • President Donald Trump:

    A thing like that shouldn't happen. It is a reporter with The Washington Post. And it's — something like that shouldn't be allowed to happen.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Mr. Trump made his first foreign visit to Saudi Arabia to announce a massive arms deal. He strongly supported Saudi policy and put Saudi Arabia at the center of his Middle East policy.

    But despite today's criticism, he rejected calls to block the arms deal.

  • President Donald Trump:

    We don't like it, and we don't like it even a little bit. But as to whether or not we should stop $110 billion from being spent in this country, knowing they have four or five alternatives, two very good alternatives, that wouldn't be acceptable to me.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But on Capitol Hill, senators are skeptical.

    Today, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker urged President Trump to get more aggressive.

  • Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn.:

    As time goes on, and we're real clear as to what's happened, hopefully, that — that type of tone and tenor will change.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    According to The Washington Post, the U.S. intelligence community does know what happened and believes Saudi Crown Mohammed bin Salman wanted to lure Khashoggi back to Saudi Arabia to detain him, and that the Istanbul operation might have been a rendition gone wrong.

    Either way, Khashoggi didn't want to go back. The BBC released audio of Khashoggi saying just two weeks ago it wouldn't be safe for him to return to a country that tolerated no dissent.

  • Jamal Khashoggi, The Washington Post:

    A Saudi columnist, an economist who was close to the royal court got arrested. And that scared many people, because here we are talking about somebody who's close to the government. The people who are arrested are not even being dissidents. They just have an independent mind.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    That independent mind might be shared by the business community. Slick promotional videos advertise a Saudi conference scheduled for next week. It's supposed to feature Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and a long list of business leaders.

    But The New York Times removed its sponsorship, and others are considering the same. And former U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz suspended his work as a consultant to the kingdom, citing deep concerns over Khashoggi nine days after he was last seen.

    We take a deeper look now at U.S. and Saudi relations with Robert Jordan. He served as U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia during the George W. Bush administration. He's now diplomat in residence at Southern Methodist university, and joins me from Dallas.

    Ambassador, thank you very much.

  • Robert Jordan:

    Thank you.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    You have been an advocate for close U.S.-Saudi relations in the past, as is this administration, and the government has been in the past as well.

    But do you think this moment is different? Are you supporting calls for withdrawal from this summit that Saudi Arabia is hosting next week, and some of the businesses that are pulling out of Saudi today?

  • Robert Jordan:

    Yes, I am.

    I have advocated a number of times today on other media that I think Americans especially who plan to go to this future investment initiative should put that on hold. This is the wrong time to be glorifying Saudi Arabia. It's the wrong time to be giving them the benefit of this kind of publicity.

    I think we have to take this very seriously. And I'm not sure that we have seen a sufficiently serious response from this administration yet either.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Do you think Secretary Mnuchin should cancel his trip and his speech?

  • Robert Jordan:

    He should cancel his trip.

    There are rumors that Dina Powell was considering going. I think it would be the exact wrong optic for her to show up at this event if she's being considered for United Nations ambassador.

    Certainly, a number of media figures have canceled, Andrew Ross Sorkin, Arianna Huffington, and others. I think these sponsors need to give some serious thought to whether they want to put their name next to this event.

    And some of these speakers, like David Petraeus, Stephen Schwarzman, Jamie Dimon, and others, need to set an example, not just for their companies, but also for our country.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    You said that this administration is not being strong enough. President Trump said today that he would decline or at least stop efforts to cancel arms sales to Saudi Arabia.

    Do you think that that sends the wrong message?

  • Robert Jordan:

    I think it sends the wrong message.

    And I think, certainly, the sale, if it really exists — and, by the way, there's some question as to how real that sale is. But if it truly does exist, I think it needs to be put on hold until we get more answers, better information and more transparency from the Saudis.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    There are a lot of officials who would push back on what you're saying, especially in the Department of Defense and the intelligence community.

    Those people say, look, we have priorities, the U.S. has priorities in the Middle East, countering Iran, countering violent extremism, trying to figure out a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians, and all of those priorities need Saudi assistance.

    So, doesn't the U.S. need Saudi Arabia's assistance in the Middle East today?

  • Robert Jordan:

    We do.

    We have a national interest in having their assistance. I faced something very similar when I arrived in Saudi Arabia a month after 9/11. I needed to deal with extremism in Saudi Arabia, but we also needed the Saudis' assistance in dealing with terrorism and dealing without Al-Qaeda.

    You find a way to do both. You make it clear that there are red lines that cannot be crossed, and there are consequences. But there's also a relationship that has to be preserved the best it can. And, in some cases, it's an uncomfortable relationship.

    But you have to be able to do both. You cannot take this sitting down. You cannot turn another — turn a blind eye to this. You have to find a way to make consequences real for this kind of rogue behavior.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    So I asked you U.S. officials today how to make those consequences real. And short of stopping arms deals, some of them cited kicking diplomats out, closing diplomatic posts, perhaps changing military cooperation in Yemen, imposing sanctions.

    Would any of those send a strong enough signal?

  • Robert Jordan:

    Well, I think some of them would, as a package, be useful.

    Certainly, backing off from our support of this costly and devastating war in Yemen is something that we should have been doing all along anyway.

    I think we certainly have a list of 15 of this hit squad that apparently came to Istanbul. Those people ought to be immediately sanctioned, as we have done with Iranian and Russian individuals in the past.

    I think other economic sanctions might follow. I don't think we need to suspend all relations or pull our diplomats. We need to continue diplomacy. This is a time for diplomacy. But it's also a time to impose consequences.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Let's zoom out a little bit and talk about the man at the center of this, at least in Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince, widely known as MBS.

    He has his critics. And you specifically mentioned the Yemen war. There have been a lot of civilian casualties, a lot of criticism of Saudi Arabia in how it has conducted that war. This incident as well, he's been really center at that criticism.

    Do you believe that this criticism of him could reduce his chances of becoming king?

  • Robert Jordan:

    I think there's a chance of that.

    Let's bear in mind that, about a year ago, he incarcerated a number of the senior royals in the Ritz-Carlton, along with a number of Russian — of Saudi oligarchs. And so I think there is an entire cadre of the family that is viewing him with great skepticism, if not outright resentment.

    He owns many of the policies that have been pursued over the last two years. And most of them have been colossal failures, the war in Yemen, the abduction of the Lebanese prime minister, the boycott of Qatar.

    And so you can go down the list, and you don't really see many successes, the failure of the Aramco IPO, the failure of their solar project.

    So I think, at some point, the responsible people in Saudi Arabia are going to be asking questions. They're going to be asking King Salman whether he really does stand behind this crown prince, at a time when he appears to be thuggish and reckless.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And, quickly, in the time we have left, you knew Jamal Khashoggi. He worked for the Saudi government. He wasn't in any way a dissident. At least, he didn't identify himself as such. He criticized the methods that Mohammed bin Salman is using.

    What does it say that he, of all people, he could have been targeted?

  • Robert Jordan:

    Well, I think it's really outlandish.

    He was a true Saudi patriot who had some differing views. He was also complimentary occasionally of the reform agenda of the crown prince. So he called it as he saw it, which is the same Jamal Khashoggi I knew 15, 18 years ago. Back in those days, he was fired a couple of times from Saudi newspapers and then rehired by Prince Turki, the Saudi ambassador to the U.K., working for him.

    So he's actually had some real admirers within the Saudi royal family. And I suspect that continues, and they are devastated by what has happened.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Robert Jordan, former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia, thank you very much.

  • Robert Jordan:

    Thank you.

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