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Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi has disappeared. Will the U.S. take a stand?

Jamal Khashoggi, a singular voice willing to criticize Saudi leaders, has disappeared in Istanbul at the Saudi consulate. The Washington Post columnist and prominent former editor has previously spoken out about some of crown prince Mohammed bin Salman's actions, including the silencing of dissenters. Nick Schifrin talks with Fred Hiatt of the Washington Post and Robin Wright from the New Yorker.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Today in Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan increased the pressure on Saudi Arabia after a prominent Saudi journalist disappeared in Istanbul.

    He was last seen on Tuesday entering Saudi Arabia's consulate in Istanbul, seeking paperwork to marry his fiancee.

    Nick Schifrin reports on what might have happened to this influential writer.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Jamal Khashoggi has been a singular, solitary voice, one of the lone Saudi journalists willing to criticize Saudi leaders. That criticism has apparently left him silenced.

  • Jamal Khashoggi:

    Thank you all for coming.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Khashoggi is a Washington Post columnist and prominent former editor. He used to be a Saudi government adviser and supported Saudi modernization efforts led by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

  • Jamal Khashoggi:

    He is doing what we demanded of him to do. So why am I being critical? Simply because he is doing the right things the wrong way, very wrong way.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Khashoggi criticized what he described as Mohammed bin Salman silencing dissent. Leading women's activists have been jailed. Shia activists have been sentenced to death.

  • Jamal Khashoggi:

    So the environment in Saudi Arabia doesn't allow for constructive criticism or constructive debate and discourse about lively matter, matter that are going to affect us for the future.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    In Istanbul, Khashoggi's supporters protested outside the Saudi Consulate, where Turkish officials say he was murdered, his body dismembered and flown out of the country.

    Saudi's Istanbul consul general, Mohammad al-Otaibi, gave a tour of the consulate to try and prove Khashoggi had come and gone safely.

  •  Mohammad al-Otaibi through translator):

    Jamal is not at the consulate, nor in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia. And the consulate and the embassy are working to search for him. We are worried about his case.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But, today, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that denial wasn't enough.

  • Recep Tayyip Erdogan (through translator):

    The consulate officials can't save themselves by saying he left here. The relevant authorities are obligated to provide proof of this claim.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Today, President Trump offered his first comments about Khashoggi when asked by a reporter.

  • Donald Trump:

    I am concerned about it. I don't like hearing about it. And, hopefully, that will sort itself out. Right now, nobody knows anything about it. But there are some pretty bad stories going around. I do not like it.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Khashoggi never considered himself the opposition, only someone with faith in his country and in freedom.

    In The Washington Post this weekend, a blank space where Khashoggi's column would have been. The headline, "A Missing Voice."

    And joining me now is Fred Hiatt, The Washington Post editorial page editor.

    Thank you very much.

    What about his voice has been so vital? And what about his voice drew you to him initially?

  • Fred Hiatt:

    He's a unique voice, I think, because of — he really knows Saudi Arabia. He

    He — as you know, he's been a journalist there for a long time. He was somebody who knows the people who run the country, as well as the ordinary folks. And he's a real patriot who wrote from the point of view of wanting the regime in Saudi Arabia to do the right thing.

    And I think what made him unusual was, he was willing to take these risks for himself, including leaving the country and going into exile and being a truth-teller, because he had hopes that Saudi Arabia might really move in the right direction. I should say, he has hopes that Saudi Arabia might move in the right direction.

    And he was trying to kind of be a positive voice pushing them in that direction.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    You referred to the risks that he took.

    Did he express concern for his safety?

  • Fred Hiatt:

    I don't think anybody expected something like the worst of what is being speculated now.

    But I think, when he left the country more than a year ago, he said: There are a lot of people in Saudi Arabia who can't speak the truth, they're in jail, or they're being muzzled. I have the opportunity, if I give everything up in my country, to go out and continue to speak the truth.

    I think he knew that put potentially relatives at risk. It put — no exile feels completely sanguine. But, at the same time, I don't think anybody would have expected something like what we're most afraid of now.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    I spoke with the State Department earlier. And all they would say is that, "We are closely following the situation."

    Is the U.S. doing enough?

  • Fred Hiatt:

    I think — you know, Jamal Khashoggi was a resident of the United States. He was a columnist for The Washington Post. That puts the United States government in a position to have both the basis and the obligation to demand answers.

    If it is true — and we continue to hope beyond hope that it's not true — if it is true that a foreign government lured one of its citizens into one of its diplomatic properties on foreign soil, and then had him murdered, it's unprecedented in modern times. We have never seen anything like that.

    And there's no way, it seems to me, that Congress or an American administration could just go back to normal relations with a country that would do that. So, the administration and Congress, in our view, should be asking for answers and asking for information, and doing it a lot more loudly and insistently than what we have heard so far.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Fred Hiatt of The Washington Post, thank you very much.

  • Fred Hiatt:

    Thank you.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And joining me now is Robin Wright. She writes for "The New Yorker" magazine and is a distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

    Robin Wright, thank you very much for joining us.

    You just heard Fred Hiatt describe how there shouldn't be a normal U.S.-Saudi relationship if this incident turns out to be true. And we have heard bipartisan outrage from multiple senators from multiple sides of the ideological spectrum saying that there should be a break in U.S.-Saudi relations if this is true.

    So, is that possible? Is a kind of break between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia possible?

  • Robin Wright:

    I doubt it.

    The fact is, Saudi Arabia is central to the Trump administration's policy in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia was his first destination as president. There was enormous pomp and ceremony when he arrived. Saudi Arabia is central to his attempt at a peace plan between Israel and the Palestinians. It is central to his counterterrorism program.

    His own son-in-law, who is his chief adviser on the Middle East, is a very close personal friend of Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince, who is allegedly linked to the fate of this wonderful Saudi critic and my longtime friend, Jamal.

    So the prospects of this changing anything, I think, are unlikely. The bigger question in some ways for Saudi Arabia is, what impact does this have on foreign businesses looking to or had been thinking about investing in the kingdom?

    That kind of big-time money is essential to the crown prince's ambitious plans to develop the kingdom, to diversify the economy beyond the oil. And there may be some who will wonder about the legitimacy, the commitment of the crown prince to genuine reforms, given his track record since taking over last year.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    So, given his need for some of those reforms, given his need for Western investment, what does this say about Saudi priorities under Mohammed bin Salman?

  • Robin Wright:

    I think Mohammed bin Salman has been proven to be quite ruthless when it comes to silencing his critics.

    He talks about reforms for women, and then he turns around, after giving them the right to drive, and arresting some of those who had been the most vocal on women's rights. And one of them was recently sentenced to death.

    There are those who were the moderate clerics condemning and speaking out against Sunni extremism or Islamic extremism. Some of those, many of those have been picked up, and some of those have been sentenced to death.

    And it's clear that there — as Jamal had often said, there is, under the current leadership, very little, if any room for criticism or questioning.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And, very quickly, Robin Wright, President Trump has criticized journalists. He has praised authoritarians.

    Does that kind of talk have any impact on this event that we're talking about today?

  • Robin Wright:

    I think the idea — human rights has generally not been very important in the Trump administration, and hasn't spoken out, made it an important part of its foreign policy.

    The fact that this is a journalist criticizing a country and a leadership very close to the Trump administration, I doubt it'll produce any kind of immediate impact or significant impact.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Robin Wright, thank you very much.

  • Robin Wright:

    Thank you.

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