A few high-profile events gripped Washington’s attention this week: On Tuesday, Special Counsel Robert Mueller recommended that Michael Flynn, Donald Trump’s first national-security adviser, receive no jail time for lying to the FBI. Also Tuesday, Republican senators broke with the White House over culpability for the killing of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. And on Wednesday, presidents, world leaders, and dignitaries gathered for the funeral of George H. W. Bush. Amid all this, less noticed, perhaps, but no less significant, was the quiet return to Washington of the Saudi ambassador to the United States, who had left shortly after the Khashoggi killing.
Whether the return of Prince Khalid bin Salman, which was confirmed by a Saudi-embassy spokesperson, will be welcomed by influential senators who received a classified briefing this week on Khashoggi’s killing from CIA Director Gina Haspel is far from certain. Although the senators did not reveal the details of the briefing, they left no doubt as to who they think is responsible for the murder of The Washington Post columnist: Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is known as MbS. Khalid is the crown prince’s younger brother.
“I said it months ago and I will say it again: we should formally expel the Saudi Ambassador to the United States given the Crown Prince’s direct involvement in the kidnapping and murder of Jamal Khashoggi,” Senator Dick Durbin, the Democrat from Illinois who is the second-highest-ranking Democrat in the Senate, said in a statement. Durbin demanded in October that Khalid be expelled “until there is a completion of a third-party investigation into this kidnap, murder, and God knows what followed that occurred in Istanbul.”
Khalid left Washington in October amid calls from U.S. officials for the kingdom to clarify its shifting explanations for Khashoggi’s death. The Saudis first said the journalist safely left the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2 soon after he entered. They then said he died following a scuffle inside the consulate. Later, they acknowledged that he was killed, and subsequently charged 11 people with the death and fired two senior officials, but labeled the murder a rogue operation and absolved any top Saudi officials of culpability.
Khalid was among those who maintained that Khashoggi had left the consulate, calling himself “a friend” of the journalist. The explanation convinced few U.S. senators. Senator Bob Corker, the Tennessee Republican who chairs the Foreign Relations Committee, said at the time that Khalid’s statement that the Saudi consulate’s surveillance system did not record video but simply live-streamed “was pretty hard for me to believe. And I shared that with him.”
Senator Lindsey Graham, an otherwise reliable ally of the White House who has emerged as perhaps the toughest critic of MbS in Congress, was asked on NBC’s Meet the Press last month whether Khalid should return as ambassador. His reply: “No.” Graham and five other senators from both parties introduced a resolution Wednesday that holds the Saudi crown prince accountable for Khashoggi’s killing.
President Trump says the U.S.-Saudi relationship is far too important to damage regardless of whether MbS ordered the killing. Khalid’s return to Washington, a day after Haspel’s classified briefing to key senators, suggests that Saudi leadership thinks that either the crisis surrounding Khashoggi’s killing is over or that it has transitioned to a more manageable scale.
“It would almost seem that the Saudis have taken the view that if you can deal directly with the White House, why bother with Congress?” said Simon Henderson, an expert on Saudi Arabia at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “And if that’s the Saudi view, I think they’re making a mistake.”