US-Saudi ties in focus as Khashoggi investigation unfolds

This is a rush transcript from "Special Report with Bret Baier," October 18, 2018. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIPS)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Do you think Jamal Khashoggi he is dead?

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: It certainly looks that way to me. It's very sad. It certainly looks that way.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Mr. President, what are you considering for possible consequences for Saudis?

TRUMP: It will have to be very severe. It's bad, bad stuff. But we'll see what happens.

SECRETARY OF STATE MIKE POMPEO: I told President Trump this morning that we ought to give them a few more days to complete that so that we, too, have complete understanding of the facts surrounding that, at which point we can make decisions about how or if the United States should respond to the incident surrounding Mr. Khashoggi.

(END VIDEO CLIPS)

BRET BAIER, ANCHOR: President Trump today on his way to Montana, much more forward- leaning as far as the possibility of what he called very severe consequences for Saudi Arabia. But, again, let's wait and see is what the message is out of the administration.

Where are we going from this? Let's bring in our panel, Tom Bevan, Real Clear Politics co-founder and publisher, Susan Page, Washington bureau chief at "USA Today," and national security analyst Morgan Ortagus. Morgan, first to you. It is a delicate line here. We've talked about it for a couple of days. But eventually you are going to have to get to a point where something happens.

MORGAN ORTAGUS, NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Right. And so the question is what is the administration response? And I think clearly that is something that they are still trying to determine. I thought the president's tone was very different this afternoon from what we've seen in previous days. And I think you look at what can be done here, ultimately what everyone wants to know, the whole ball of wax, is will MBS, the crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, will be held accountable for this?

I seriously doubt that there is an investigation that the Saudis will do that will ultimately hold him responsible, but there is more and more evidence that has been leaked to the press, we don't know what is going on behind the scenes, where there looks like there's culpability.

So I think there are a few options here. The president can take a very hard line and say that he needs to be ultimately held responsible, or there are things that you could do within the kingdom where you could sort of see a reshuffling. For example, both intelligence agencies in Saudi, Mabahith and GIP, fall under the control of the crown prince. So there would be a way potentially maybe for the Saudis to strip away some of that authority, maybe give it to another prince, a more adult in the room.

BAIER: Interesting. The treasury secretary, Steve Mnuchin, not going to this Davos in the desert, this financial meeting in Saudi Arabia. "Just met with the president, Donald Trump, and Secretary of State Pompeo. We have deciding I will not be participating in the future investment initiative summit in Saudi Arabia." A late call on that but one that they had to do.

SUSAN PAGE, USA TODAY: It was an acknowledgment of the obvious. It was not possible for the treasury secretary to go to this meeting, especially after American business leaders had decided already with much more dispatch that they would not attend. And you feel even with the change in tone we heard from President Trump, tonight how reluctantly he went there. His first instinct was, so this is a bad thing but it doesn't match our financial interests. It doesn't match our strategic interests with Saudi Arabia. But he found himself at odds not just with the rest of the world, the rest of our allies, but with his own Congress, with Republicans in Congress who made it clear, if he wasn't prepared to act, they likely would.

BAIER: Tom, they are waiting on facts, and trying to get those facts is a challenge. You have obviously Iran, Qatar, Turkey, they are all trying to put fuel on this story, because they don't have a lot of fond feelings about Saudi Arabia.

TOM BEVAN, REAL CLEAR POLITICS: No, and it is a tight rope that the administration is walking. And I think where this is headed, though, is probably, we'll give them some time to issue a report. That report will probably absolve MBS from responsibility, but the Saudis may take some responsibility and say that something bad happened. We'll make sure it doesn't happen again. The administration is probably going to give MBS a slap on the wrist and tried to put this thing behind them.

I think Mike Pompeo outside the White House today, he emphasized how important, how longstanding this relationship is, how much it matters to U.S. strategic national interest. And it is inconceivable, almost, that this one event, as heinous and gruesome as it may have been, that the administration is going to allow that to rupture that relationship.

BAIER: We're talking about the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist, worked for the Washington Post as a columnist. He did give an interview to CBS back in November, talking about Saudi Arabia.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JAMAL KHASHOGGI, WASHINGTON POST COLUMNIST: Saudi Arabia is receiving the message from the United States, one from the president, which encourages them of this aggressive behavior.

Is it the Trump effect that made Prince Mohammed bin Salman feel empowered in both in behavior and foreign policy? It is dangerous. It is dangerous for Saudi Arabia, for the region.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BAIER: And today The Washington Post published his last column posthumously, "Arab governments have been given free rein to continuing silencing the media at an increasing rate. The Arab world is facing its own version of an Iron Curtain imposed not by external actors but through domestic forces vying for power. During the cold war Radio Free Europe, which grew over the years into a critical institution, played an important role in fostering and sustaining the help of freedom. Arabs need something similar."

Some corners, Morgan, are looking at his background, his ties, but what he was talking about in this column and what he was in these soundbites is really opening when it comes to press freedom in the Arab world.

ORTAGUS: Listen, the Middle East is constantly tumultuous. I lived there in 2010 and 11 in Riyadh, in Saudi Arabia during the Arab spring when we saw many governments falling which we never thought would happen.

I think what has happened here with MBS is a very unfortunate situation. I think one thing I do think we want to be careful of is that we don't want to do anything that would empower these really conservative Islamic clerics, journalists in Saudi Arabia who are calling for him to step down. I think we do have to -- I think he should be held accountable if ultimately that's what the U.S. finds. But I do think we have to remember that this is a region that is constantly on fire, so to speak. And when you look at the Saudis and the long relationship we've had with them, we've had the 73 oil crisis, we had 9/11, and now we have this. So we have gone through major, major issues with Saudi Arabia. I think we will get through this if everyone comes to the table and sort of cleanly --

BAIER: Quickly, Susan, balancing U.S. national interests in the region and standing up for American values, that is what we are.

PAGE: And that is the balance presidents always face. But here's the perplexing thing. MBS has made a big effort to cultivate support in the United States. What accounts for this fundamental miscalculation that they could do this and get away with it without big consequences? And I don't know the answer to that question.

BAIER: I don't think we do.

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