World News

Top White House Official Involved in Saudi Sanctions Resigns

Posted November 17, 2018 9:26 p.m. EST
Updated November 17, 2018 9:30 p.m. EST

WASHINGTON — 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 who lived in Virginia. He said he had not yet been shown a CIA assessment that Crown Prince Mohammed had ordered the assassination and expected to be briefed later in the day.

“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.

But when Trump spoke to reporters from Malibu, California, hours later, he insisted that the CIA had not “assessed anything yet. It’s too early.” He said there would be a report on Tuesday that would address what “we think the overall impact was and who caused it, and who did it.”

“It’s a horrible thing that took place, the killing of a journalist,” Trump said.

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 on Saturday morning, 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. Al-Assiri, 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. According to her LinkedIn page, she had been at the National Security Council since March. Her LinkedIn page said she served in the State Department for five years, 2011 to 2016.

In recent days, Saudi Arabia has again shifted its account of how the crime was carried out, but has continued to deny that the crown prince knew in advance about or had any involvement in the operation.

Weeks earlier, Trump denounced the Saudi operation as a “bad original concept” that was “carried out poorly." But on Saturday, he sounded more sanguine. The president, who has proclaimed the crown prince the future of Saudi Arabia, defended the administration’s policy toward its longtime ally, framing the issue as one of economics, not human rights.

“You know, we also have a great ally in Saudi Arabia,” Trump said. “They give us a lot of jobs. They give us a lot of business, a lot of economic development. They have been a truly spectacular ally in terms of jobs and economic development.”