The State Department, in any other administration, would likely be taking an extremely involved, overtly public-facing role in investigating journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s disappearance.
Khashoggi was last seen entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul last Tuesday. Turkish investigators concluded yesterday that Khashoggi was killed based on orders from the “highest levels of the royal court,” according to the New York Times, by a 15-man specialized hit team. The highest levels of the royal court very likely means Mohammad bin Salman, the crown prince of Saudi Arabia and personal buddy of Jared Kushner. Bin Salman’s ties to the White House, and the administration’s tacit support of his crimes are well documented, which may go a long way to explaining why the Trump Administration’s response to the incident has so far been utterly feckless.
Take, for example, this exchange between State Department spokesman Robert Palladino and Associated Press diplomatic reporter Matt Lee, after another source at State alluded to FBI involvement in the Turkish investigation. It’s a little bit long, but well worth it—Lee hammers Palladino and refuses to let the issue drop. From the transcript (Lee is the questioner in this exchange, per Twitter):
QUESTION: And then in terms of your high-level diplomatic talks, other than the calls you – other than the calls that you’ve read out here, presumably you have people on the ground in both Ankara, Istanbul – in Ankara, Istanbul, and Riyadh all pushing this, right?
MR PALLADINO: Our embassies overseas, absolutely.
MR PALLADINO: Our diplomatic mission overseas.
QUESTION: Who again – what’s the name of the ambassador in Turkey right now?
MR PALLADINO: I don’t have that in front of me right now and I – Matt —
QUESTION: What’s the name of the ambassador in Saudi Arabia right now?
MR PALLADINO: I see what you’re getting at. Okay. We are confident in our diplomatic —
QUESTION: The answer is that you don’t have an ambassador in either place, right?
MR PALLADINO: We —
QUESTION: And in fact, the charge in Riyadh has now been nominated to be the ambassador to Yemen. So just is it correct that you do not have ambassadors in place in either Ankara or Riyadh?
MR PALLADINO: But we have diplomatic staff, senior diplomatic officials —
QUESTION: I’m sure you do.
MR PALLADINO: — very much – very much in charge. And yesterday Heather spoke at the top as well about the need for the State Department to get its full team on the field, and we definitely would reiterate our request for our colleagues in the Senate and their assistance in fielding our full camp.
QUESTION: Understood. Who has been nominated to be the new ambassador to Turkey, and who has been nominated to be the new ambassador to Saudi Arabia? Who are the nominees who are awaiting Senate movement?
MR PALLADINO: Matt, I don’t have that in front of me right now. And – but let me just say these are senior Foreign Service officers that have had full careers and we’re confident in our team’s ability.
To recap, Lee’s point here is that the U.S. does not currently have an official ambassador to Turkey, nor Saudi Arabia. (The full conference transcript is worth a read—it’s a good overview of the current situation and the State Department’s response.) The embassy in Saudi Arabia is currently led by an interim “chargé d’affaires,” who, as Lee notes, was recently nominated to be the ambassador to Yemen. In a diplomatic situation where one of the U.S.’s biggest allies in the region allegedly kidnapped, murdered, and dismembered a U.S. resident and journalist inside of a consulate in the largest city in Turkey, this is their time to shine. And their role, at least so far, appears completely up in the air. Perhaps Palladino’s defense is valid—there are likely competent people staffing both of those—but when it comes to formulating an institutional response to a major diplomatic incident, the Trump State Department is seems an absolute mess.
Fortunately, over at the Department of Defense, Secretary James Mattis says he’s monitoring the situation “intellectually,” whatever that means.