Trump official in­volved in Saudi sanc­tions re­signs

The Charlotte Observer (Sunday) - - News - BY MAG­GIE HABERMAN New York Times

A top White House official re­spon­si­ble for U.S. pol­icy to­ward Saudi Ara­bia re­signed Fri­day evening, a move that may sug­gest frac­tures in­side the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion over the re­sponse to the bru­tal killing of dis­si­dent Ja­mal Khashoggi.

The official, Kirsten Fon­tenrose, had pushed for tough mea­sures against the Saudi govern­ment, and had been in Riyadh to dis­cuss a raft of sanc­tions the U.S. govern­ment im­posed in re­cent days against those iden­ti­fied as re­spon­si­ble for the killing, ac­cord­ing to two peo­ple fa­mil­iar with the con­ver­sa­tions. Specif­i­cally, she ad­vo­cated that Saud al-Qah­tani, a top ad­viser to Crown Prince Mo­hammed bin Sal­man, be added to the list, and he ul­ti­mately was.

The ex­act cir­cum­stances of her de­par­ture are murky, and it is un­clear whether her ad­vo­cacy for a hawk­ish re­sponse to the killing an­gered some in the White House. When she re­turned to Washington, ac­cord­ing to the two peo­ple, she had a dis­pute with her bosses at the Na­tional Se­cu­rity Coun­cil, where she had served as the di­rec­tor for the Per­sian Gulf re­gion.

A rep­re­sen­ta­tive for the coun­cil de­clined to com­ment. Fon­tenrose did not re­ply to mes­sages seek­ing com­ment.

On Satur­day morn­ing, Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump de­murred about whether he would pub­licly hold the crown prince re­spon­si­ble for the death of Khashoggi, a Washington Post colum­nist. He said he had not yet been shown a CIA as­sess­ment that Crown Prince Mo­hammed had or­dered the as­sas­si­na­tion.

“As of this mo­ment, we were told that he did not play a role,” Trump said of the crown prince as he spoke to re­porters out­side the White House be­fore head­ing to Cal­i­for­nia to view wild­fire dam­age. “We’re go­ing to have to find out what they say.”

“We haven’t been briefed yet,” the pres­i­dent con­tin­ued. “The CIA will be speak­ing to me to­day.”

Trump has stead­fastly re­fused to di­rectly blame Crown Prince Mo­hammed, who is a close ally of his son-in-law and se­nior ad­viser, Jared Kush­ner, and a linch­pin of the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s Mid­dle East pol­icy. He has, how­ever, con­demned Saudi Ara­bia’s han­dling of the killing as “the worst cover-up ever.”

The CIA has con­cluded that the crown prince or­dered Khashoggi’s as­sas­si­na­tion, ac­cord­ing to U.S. of­fi­cials, an as­sess­ment that was re­ported by mul­ti­ple news out­lets Fri­day evening. Khashoggi was killed while vis­it­ing the Saudi Con­sulate in Is­tan­bul in Oc­to­ber to ob­tain pa­per­work he needed for his com­ing wed­ding.

Hours af­ter Trump spoke, a State Depart­ment spokes­woman is­sued a care­fully worded state­ment that called the news re­ports about the CIA’s as­sess­ment “in­ac­cu­rate,” with­out giv­ing any specifics.

“There re­main nu­mer­ous unan­swered ques­tions with re­spect to the mur­der of Mr. Khashoggi. The State Depart­ment will con­tinue to seek all rel­e­vant facts,” said the spokes­woman, Heather Nauert. “In the mean­time, we will con­tinue to con­sult Congress, and work with other na­tions to hold ac­count­able those in­volved in the killing of Ja­mal Khashoggi.”

This past week, the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion im­posed sanc­tions on 17 Saudis ac­cused of be­ing in­volved in the killing. The ac­tion came the same day that Saudi Ara­bia’s pub­lic pros­e­cu­tor an­nounced that he would seek the death penalty for five peo­ple he said took part in the mur­der. The Trea­sury Depart­ment, which is­sued the sanc­tions, as­serted that al-Qah­tani, the close ad­viser to the crown prince, was “part of the plan­ning and ex­e­cu­tion of the op­er­a­tion that led to the killing of Mr. Khashoggi.”

Al-Qah­tani di­rected me­dia op­er­a­tions for the Saudi royal court and was the strate­gist be­hind on­line ha­rass­ment of the king­dom’s crit­ics, in­clud­ing Khashoggi, ac­cord­ing to U.S. and Saudi of­fi­cials.

The list of Saudis fac­ing sanc­tions did not in­clude Ahmed al-As­siri, a for­mer deputy head of the Saudi in­tel­li­gence ser­vice. AlAs­siri, also a con­fi­dant of Crown Prince Mo­hammed, was be­lieved to have mas­ter­minded the op­er­a­tion to con­front Khashoggi in the con­sulate in Tur­key. Mem­bers of Congress in both par­ties said they would con­tinue to push for much stronger ac­tion against Saudi Ara­bia.

As pres­sure mounted on the White House in re­cent weeks to de­vise a tough re­sponse to the killing, Fon­tenrose was sent to Saudi Ara­bia as part of a group try­ing to de­ter­mine sanc­tions.

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