A Grain of Saul is a weekly column that digs into some of the biggest issues we face as a nation and as an international community in search of reliable data, realistic solutions, and — most importantly — hope.
The disappearance of Washington Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi is a crucial moment for our Republican-led Congress to show the world it will defend the freedom of the press at all costs.
Khashoggi, a permanent U.S. resident and Saudi citizen, was last seen entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey on Oct. 2, as shown by security footage circulated widely online. He was not seen leaving the building. In his writing, Khashoggi has been critical of Saudi Arabia.
Turkish officials claim they have evidence that 15 “Saudi agents” flew to the consulate that day and left with his dismembered body hours later. CNN and The New York Times have each reported that the Saudi government was preparing to release a statement claiming Khashoggi’s disappearance was a “botched interrogation” that had no ties to the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who had wooed western media with calls to reform the kingdom.
But there is an overwhelming amount of evidence being leaked to the press that suggests Khashoggi was killed at the direction of the bin Salman or his father, the King of Saudi Arabia. The New York Times has identified several men with close ties to bin Salman who were present at the Saudi consulate the day of Khashoggi’s death. The paper also concluded that “at least nine of 15 suspects identified by Turkish authorities worked for the Saudi security services, military or other government ministries.”
This reality would contradict President Trump and bin Salman’s past claims that the kingdom had nothing to do with the killing. And, with United States intelligence officials increasingly sure of bin Salman’s involvement, would require a strong, immediate response from the United States government, who has sold billions of dollars of weapons to the Saudi Kingdom this year. But will we get one?
The answer to that question could have ramifications across the world. If a government like Saudi Arabia’s can kill journalists critical of its actions without any repercussions from the United States, there is little hope for freedom of the press across the globe — freedom of the press that Khashoggi called for in what The Washington Post described as his “last piece.”
Some Republican members of Congress have spoken forcefully about the actions the United States must take if the allegations are true, while others have said they will wait to see how the president reacts before making their stand. Neither, though, are sufficient. The president has not made clear that he will prevent the Saudi Arabian government from avoiding punishment. He’s suggested that “rogue killers” may have been responsible for Khashoggi’s disappearance, pointed to the sale of weapons to Saudi Arabia as a reason to keep our alliance strong, and echoed the kingdom’s response that it was not responsible for his disappearance.
Which means members of Congress have to step up.
Instead of following Trump’s lead, Republicans legislators should grab the wheel: they should issue punitive sanctions against the Kingdom and hit them where it hurts by stopping all arms sales to the country until it provides a full, honest explanation of Khashoggi’s disappearance that aligns with the trove of intelligence on the incident the public is seeing.
If it’s as bad as it appears, the sanctions should remain in place for the remainder of President Trump’s first term.
Then, and only then, the United States can show the world that it will always defend the freedom of the press — and the journalists who exercise that right — both here and abroad.
Cover image via -/AFP/Getty Images.