Khashoggi crisis widens rift between Trump, Congress

Toluse Olorunnipa and Daniel Flatley
Bloomberg News

President Donald Trump is facing increased pressure from Congress over his handling of journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s disappearance, exposing a widening rift between the White House and Capitol Hill over the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia.

Lawmakers from Trump’s own party, including the president’s ally Senator Lindsey Graham, are openly voicing their discontent and threatening to sanction the Saudi government over the objections of the president, who has sought to build a closer relationship with Riyadh.

The stark differences underscore that Saudi Arabia enjoys far greater respect in the Oval Office than in the Capitol. Many lawmakers harbor a distrust of the kingdom dating back to its connection to the Sept. 11 attacks. Its bloody involvement in Yemen’s civil war and interference in Lebanese politics have cost it further U.S. support.

The Trump administration, meanwhile – led by the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner – has drawn ever closer to the Saudis as it fashions a strategy in the Mideast that revolves around the kingdom.

“There are a number of constituencies in Congress that are hostile to Saudi Arabia,” said Jon Alterman, a senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. U.S. lawmakers have complained about the kingdom’s egregious human rights record, its suppression of religious freedom and civilian deaths in the Yemen war.

“The Khashoggi case provides a central rallying point for all of these people to criticize the Saudis and the president’s relationship with them,” he said.

Should Congress act against Saudi Arabia despite Trump’s reservations, it would mark yet another defeat in Washington for the kingdom. Just two years ago, Congress passed legislation allowing Saudi Arabia to be sued for its involvement in the Sept. 11 attacks. Though the Saudi government wasn’t found to have had a formal role in the attacks, 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi citizens, a fact not forgotten by lawmakers or the American public.

Tortured, dismembered

Turkish officials have said that Khashoggi was tortured, murdered and dismembered in the Saudi consulate in Instanbul shortly after he arrived Oct. 2 to retrieve a document related to his wedding. A team of 15 Saudi agents arrived in Instanbul and left the same day of Khashoggi’s visit, according to reports by the New York Times and Washington Post.

The U.S. can condemn Saudi Arabia’s conduct “without blowing up the Middle East and without destroying our ability to talk with them,” Senator John Kennedy, a Louisiana Republican, said Wednesday. “Our foreign policy has to be anchored in values.”

U.S. options include expelling Saudi diplomats, securing a United Nations resolution criticizing the kingdom’s behavior, curtailing arms sales or enacting sanctions on Saudi officials, Kennedy said. Trump opposes canceling a $110 billion arms deal with the kingdom that he said Wednesday would create 500,000 U.S. jobs.

Graham, a South Carolina Republican who is one of Trump’s most stalwart allies in Congress, called Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, “toxic” and a “wrecking ball” in an interview on “Fox and Friends” on Tuesday.

“Nothing happens in Saudi Arabia without MBS knowing it,” Graham said.

Middle East linchpin

Trump chose Saudi Arabia for his first overseas trip as president and he has rejected the idea of reassessing the U.S.-Saudi relationship over Khashoggi’s disappearance. The Trump administration has made Saudi Arabia a linchpin of its Middle East policy, which seeks to isolate Iran financially and diplomatically. The Saudis have been a key partner in that effort, and Trump has defended the kingdom even as it engaged in a crackdown on members of the royal family and pursued the war in Yemen.

Trump and his Secretary of State Michael Pompeo have placed inordinate weight on Saudi Arabian denials that the kingdom is responsible for Khashoggi’s disappearance, and the president has sought to downplay the affair. Trump has repeatedly noted that Khashoggi was not a U.S. citizen and on Monday floated the notion that “rogue killers” may have murdered him. Trump admitted in an interview with the Associated Press on Tuesday that the idea had been suggested to him by Saudi Arabia’s King Salman.

Trump lamented in the same interview that the Saudis were considered “guilty until proven innocent.” On Wednesday, he called them a U.S. “ally.”

“They are a tremendous purchaser of not only military equipment but other things,” he said.

After meeting with Saudi Arabian leaders including Prince Mohammed in Riyadh on Tuesday, Pompeo issued a statement underscoring their denials.

“My assessment from these meetings is that there is serious commitment to determine all the facts and ensure accountability, including accountability for Saudi Arabia’s senior leaders or senior officials,” Pompeo said.

“It’s important that everyone keep in their mind that we have lots of important relationships – financial relationships between U.S. and Saudi companies, governmental relationships, things we work on together all across the world,” Pompeo told reporters aboard his plane Wednesday after it left Turkey. “The Saudis have been great partners in working alongside us.”

Not buying it

Congress isn’t buying it, and Trump may soon face a second overwhelming vote to impose sanctions on a country with which the president has sought to improve relations. Last year, veto-proof majorities in Congress approved sanctions on Russia to punish its 2016 election interference, over Trump’s objections.

“This is not rogue killers,” Graham said Tuesday on Fox News radio. “This is a rogue crown prince.”

Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said last week that “there will have to be significant sanctions placed at the highest levels” if Khashoggi was killed in the consulate. Senator Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican, has said he’ll seek a vote to block future arms sales to Saudi Arabia.

Senator Todd Young, an Indiana Republican, tweeted Wednesday “The Khashoggi murder and actions in Yemen are both part of a pattern of immoral and reckless behavior by Saudi Arabia.” Young penned an op-ed with Democratic Senator Jeanne Shaheen in the Washington Post last month to hold Saudi Arabia accountable for contributing to the war in Yemen.

A bipartisan group of senators also invoked the 2016 Magnitsky Act in a letter to Trump, giving the administration 120 days to respond to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee with a decision on potential sanctions against officials responsible for human rights violations.

Senator Ben Sasse, a Nebraska Republican, called Wednesday for an international investigation of Khashoggi’s disappearance and criticized Trump for focusing on arms sales to Riyadh.

“It’s always important to see arms sales as a means to a larger end, not as the end in themselves,” he said on CNN.

Democrats have been even more direct in their criticism, with some insinuating that Trump’s approach to the Saudis is driven by his financial interests. Trump said in a Twitter post on Tuesday that he has no holdings in Saudi Arabia.

Sen. Chuck Schumer on Wednesday tweeted, “Fascinating to watch what @realDonaldTrump will allow the Saudis to do. Whether it’s killing Yemeni school children, or ‘accidentally’ murdering a reporter in their own consulate, it seems like they can do no wrong. I wonder why?”