The assassination of Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi Arabian dissident, author, and columnist for the Washington Post, at the hands of Saudi Arabian agents has shined a spotlight on the U.S./Saudi relationship and U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. Khashoggi’s murder was carried out on October 2 at the Saudi Arabian Consulate in Istanbul where he was likely strangled, and his body was then dismembered and burned in a tandoori oven. Despite the Saudi government’s assertions of innocence, CIA research has repeatedly implicated Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in ordering Khashoggi’s killing. In November, the U.S. Department of the Treasury sanctioned 17 individuals for their roles in the assassination in accordance with the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act.
President Trump, however, brushes over calls to cut arms sales; instead, he has supported the Crown Prince’s claims of innocence, which has been taken up by Secretary of State Pompeo as well. On February 8th, the White House missed a deadline imposed by a bipartisan group of senators to identify Khashoggi’s killers and decide whether to impose sanctions. A White House official commented in a statement that “consistent with the previous administration’s position and the constitutional separation of powers, the president maintains his discretion to decline to act on congressional committee requests when appropriate.”
While the President may refuse to address the murder of journalist Khashoggi, the American public desires further action. A survey of 1000 Americans conducted by WPA Intelligence in January found that a vast majority of American adults (62%) hold an unfavorable impression of the Saudi Arabian government. The country’s unfavorability is reflected in the plurality of adults (48%) who believe that the United States needs to do more to address the Khashoggi’s murder and the sheer number of adults (50%) who believe that the Saudi Arabian government is not doing enough to address it. Overall, only three-in-ten adults feel that either country is addressing the issue sufficiently. With a strong body of evidence pointing to the involvement of the Saudi government and Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman in Khashoggi’s assassination, a plurality of adults (39%) call for the United States to take strong action, including sanctioning both weapons sale and trade, issuing travel bans on government or royal officials, and cutting diplomatic ties. The vast majority of American adults (66%) believe that leaders are responsible for the actions of their respective governments. As a result, their dissatisfaction with the government’s insufficient response to the killing leads them to point a finger squarely at the Trump administration.
The desire for action from the American public has been mirrored by the rhetoric and initiatives of Congress. As the details of Jamal Khashoggi’s murder continue to be released and response from the White House continues to stall, frustration among members of Congress from both sides of the aisle grows. Attempting to find ways to work around the administration, in February the House passed a rare war powers resolution to end U.S. support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen. On Monday, March 4, Republican and Democratic Senators alike attended a meeting at Capitol Hill, which, according to Senator Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), provided no new information. That this issue has drawn bipartisan support despite a very polarized political environment, makes the message very clear. As Representative Adam B. Schiff put it, the killing of Jamal Khashoggi “is one of those acts that must cause us to re-examine the relationship and how much dependence we place on it.”