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James Mattis and MBS at the Pentagon in March. Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images
Report after report implicates Saudi agents in the alleged murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and no credible alternative explanation has emerged. The question is becoming whether his disappearance fundamentally changes the U.S.-Saudi relationship and if not, why?
Why it matters: The Trump administration, led by Jared Kushner, has placed a massive bet on Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) as the partner the U.S. needs in the Middle East and the man to modernize Saudi Arabia. He may well be. He is also proving himself to be a ruthless autocrat responsible for the jailing of his critics, massive civilian casualties in Yemen and — if reports are accurate — the assassination of a U.S. resident and Washington Post columnist outside of Saudi Arabia's borders.
State Dept. spokesperson Heather Nauert said repeatedly in a briefing today that "we don't know what happened" to Khashoggi. She wouldn't discuss U.S. responses, saying it was "entirely a hypothetical situation."
President Trump, meanwhile, was remarkably blunt when asked whether he'd consider suspending arms sales:
"What good does that do us? There are other things we can do. First I want to find out what happened, and we're looking. Again, this took place in Turkey and to the best of our knowledge Khashoggi is not a United States citizen. ... We don't like it, but as to whether we should stop $110 billion being spent in our country knowing they have four or five alternatives ... that would not be acceptable to me."
Context: Promoting human rights is not a foreign policy priority for Trump, and building strong ties with the Saudis is — Saudi Arabia was the first country he visited as president.
Things look a bit different on Capitol Hill. Sen. Bob Corker, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, told CNN today: “My instincts say there's no question the Saudi government did this." He's one of 22 senators who signed a letter calling on Trump to impose sanctions on anyone found to be responsible.
At a minimum, the growing backlash seems to undermine the massive public relations push MBS has undertaken around the world.
What to watch: There are billions of dollars tied up in the idea that MBS is a reformer. We'll get an early sign of whether the mood is shifting at the Future Investment Initiative he'll host later this month in Riyadh. Big names are under pressure to pull out. Meanwhile, Virgin's Richard Branson announced today he's suspending talks with the Saudis over his space venture.
Go deeper: What we know about Khashoggi's disappearance
Brunson being moved from prison to house arrest. Photo: Evren Atalay/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
NBC News and the Wall Street Journal are reporting that American pastor Andrew Brunson is expected to be released from a Turkish jail tomorrow, a move that could end a crisis that pushed U.S.-Turkey ties to a breaking point over the past two months. Axios has not independently confirmed those reports.
Catch up quick: Brunson has been held since 2016 on terrorism charges the U.S. says are baseless. Trump fumed publicly and slapped sanctions on Turkey after the pastor was moved to house arrest in August, rather than released as the U.S. expected. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan seemed shocked by the response and refused to back down.
The latest: Brunson will be in court tomorrow. Sources tell NBC he'll be released under a deal that "includes a commitment by the U.S. to ease economic pressure on Turkey." WSJ says the judge is "expected to drop some charges and, at most, sentence him to time already served."
Soner Cagaptay of the Washington Institute tells me, "If a reset happens, MBS will have played a big role in it."
Go deeper: Jarrett Blanc of the Carnegie Endowment writes for Axios Expert Voices that despite strained ties, the Trump administration "needs to work closely with Turkey to address" Khashoggi's disappearance.
A soldier looks at a radar screen of an S-400 missile system at the Vostok 2018 military exercise, which involves troops from China and Mongolia. Photo: TASS/Getty Images
Military hardware is Russia's second-biggest source of income after oil, and the S-400 surface-to-air missile is one of the country's most advanced and marketable weapons systems in recent years. Yarno Ritzen of Al Jazeera reports on why it poses a risk for long-standing alliances:
Because of its capabilities, several countries including China, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, India and Qatar have said they are willing to buy the S-400. Almost every government that announced it was planning to buy the system was threatened with some kind of diplomatic retaliation from the U.S., NATO or adversaries.
"India places top priority on ties with Russia. In today's fast-changing world, our relationship assumes heightened importance.”— Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Vladimir Putin after signing the $5 billion deal.
What to watch: Turkey, a NATO member, is one of the most significant potential buyers of the S-400, which would be difficult to integrate into NATO’s defense system. "The worst-case scenario,” Brand says, “is that there might be vulnerabilities ... that could be exploited by a potential adversary.”
South Africa's two most recent presidents snap photos during a party conference last December. Photo: Mujahid Safodien/AFP/Getty Images
A new Pew report looks at rising access to cell phones and the internet in six sub-Saharan African countries: South Africa, Senegal, Nigeria, Kenya, Ghana and Tanzania. Key findings:
The bottom line: Vast majorities think the internet improves education, the economy, personal relationships and (by a smaller margin) politics. Respondents were split on how it affects morality.
A Chinese spy accused of stealing U.S. trade secrets was lured to Belgium, arrested and then extradited to the U.S. in what appears to be an unprecedented step by federal authorities.
Asian countries lead the way in the World Bank's new "human capital index," calculated based on the health and education of children around the world.
Spikes in the price of rice and other foods in the Philippines are "starting to alienate" the core supporters of President Rodrigo Duterte, the NYT reports.
Flowers and a portrait of slain Bulgarian television journalist Viktoria Marinova. Photo: Dimitar Dilkoff. Photo: AFP/Getty Images
Khashoggi's disappearance highlights the dangerous climate for journalists in many countries around the world at present. Axios' Zach Basu rounds up three other troubling stories this week alone:
By the numbers: So far in 2018, 27 journalists have been murdered, up from 18 in 2017 and 19 in 2016, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Since 1992, 1,322 journalists have been killed as a result of their work; 848 have been murdered, while 298 were killed in crossfire or combat.
A traditional human tower competition in Tarragona, Spain. Photo: Maja Hitij/Getty Images
“They do nothing without our approval.”— Trump on South Korea