Saudi mystery drives wedge between Trump, GOP

The mysterious disappearance of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Turkey is driving a wedge between President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump administration eyes proposal to block jet engine sales to China: report Trump takes track to open Daytona 500 Brazile 'extremely dismayed' by Bloomberg record MORE and Republican members of Congress, who are pressing for an aggressive U.S. response if Saudi Arabia is found responsible for the suspected killing. 

Trump on Tuesday said Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman had denied any knowledge of Khashoggi’s fate, a statement that for the second day in a row sent the signal that the president is comfortable with the Saudi government’s explanations so far. 

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“Just spoke with the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia who totally denied any knowledge of what took place in their Turkish Consulate,” Trump wrote on Twitter. He added that the crown prince had told Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoDonald Trump: Unrepentant, on the attack and still playing the victim US defense chief says Taliban deal 'looks very promising' but not without risk Kobach says he discussed his Senate bid with Trump MORE that his government would rapidly expand an investigation and that answers would be “forthcoming.”

Later, Trump said in an interview with The Associated Press that blaming Saudi Arabia for Khashoggi’s disappearance is another example of “guilty until proven innocent,” an allusion to sexual misconduct allegations made last month against Supreme Court Justice Brett KavanaughBrett Michael KavanaughManchin not ruling out endorsing Trump reelection Impeachment fallout threatens to upend battle for Senate Tlaib says she held Omar's hand during 'triggering' moments at Trump's State of the Union speech MORE.

On Monday, following a conversation with Saudi King Salman, Trump said that “rogue killers” could have killed Khashoggi. Not long after the president spoke, published reports said the Saudi government was preparing to say that Khashoggi was killed as part of a botched interrogation. 

Khashoggi was seen entering the Saudi consulate on Oct. 2 but was never seen leaving. His fiancée waited for hours for him to exit the building. 

The Saudi government has given little explanation of how Khashoggi might have left the consulate even as Turkish officials have pointed the finger at Riyadh. Leaks from the Turkish government indicate that Khashoggi, who contributed opinion pieces to The Washington Post and lived in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., was killed and dismembered at the consulate.

Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamUS defense chief says Taliban deal 'looks very promising' but not without risk Lawmakers wary as US on cusp of initial deal with Taliban Graham requests interviews with DOJ, FBI officials as part of probe into Russia investigation MORE (R-S.C.), one of the president’s closest allies on Capitol Hill, threatened to “sanction the hell out of Saudi Arabia” in a Tuesday interview on Fox, adding that he was “personally offended” by Khashoggi’s disappearance. Graham said the crown prince had “tainted” his country and himself and had to go. 

Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioPeace Corps' sudden decision to leave China stirs blowback Lawmakers raise concerns over Russia's growing influence in Venezuela USDA takes heat as Democrats seek probe into trade aid MORE (R-Fla.), a prominent member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, on Tuesday said Congress would act independently of the administration if necessary. 

“The Senate, the Congress, I believe will act in a bipartisan way and this is going to alter the relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia for the foreseeable future,” Rubio told CNN in an interview. 

Sen. Ben CardinBenjamin (Ben) Louis CardinSenate Democrats queasy over Sanders as nominee Schumer: Trump address 'demagogic, undignified, highly partisan' Democrats press IRS on protecting taxpayers from debt collectors MORE (Md.), a senior Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, backed up that prediction. 

“There’s going to be consequences and we’re going to take action. We’re an independent branch of government. We’ve shown that before with our relationship with Russia, we’ve shown it with North Korea, and we’ll show it here with Saudi Arabia,” Cardin said on CNN. 

There were also calls from Republican Sens. Jeff FlakeJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FlakeMcSally launches 2020 campaign Sinema will vote to convict Trump Senate drama surrounding Trump trial starts to fizzle MORE (Ariz.), Todd YoungTodd Christopher YoungThe Hill's Morning Report — AG Barr, GOP senators try to rein Trump in Overnight Defense: Senate votes to rein in Trump war powers on Iran | Pentagon shifting .8B to border wall | US, Taliban negotiate seven-day 'reduction in violence' The 8 Republicans who voted to curb Trump's Iran war powers MORE (Ind.) and Rubio for Treasury Secretary Steven MnuchinSteven Terner MnuchinGOP senators offering bill to cement business provision in Trump tax law On The Money: Deficit spikes 25 percent through January | Mnuchin declines to say why Trump pulled Treasury nominee who oversaw Roger Stone case | Lawmakers trade insults over Trump budget cuts Mnuchin defends Treasury regulations on GOP tax law MORE to cancel a planned trip for the “Davos in the desert” financial summit that Saudi Arabia is set to host next week. 

Young criticized what he called “a pattern of reckless behavior” by the crown prince.

At the same time, Republicans did not criticize the administration’s response to the controversy. Graham said that whatever happens next is “up to the president.”

GOP leaders in Congress have offered support for Trump.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellTrump declares war on hardworking Americans with new budget request The Hill's Morning Report — AG Barr, GOP senators try to rein Trump in Overnight Health Care: Nevada union won't endorse before caucuses after 'Medicare for All' scrap | McConnell tees up votes on two abortion bills | CDC confirms 15th US coronavirus case MORE (R-Ky.) praised Trump for tasking Pompeo with trying to sort out some of the details.

“I think it’s good the president sent the secretary of State out to talk to the king. We need to find out first what happened before deciding what kind of response is appropriate,” he told Bloomberg News in an interview.  

A spokesperson for Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanPaul Ryan says Biden likely won't get Democratic nomination Judd Gregg: Honey, I Shrunk The Party The Hill's Morning Report — Dems detail case to remove Trump for abuse of power MORE (R-Wis.) had no immediate comment on Pompeo’s meetings or whether the House might take up sanctions against Saudi Arabia. At an event last week, Ryan called the disappearance of Khashoggi “disturbing” and said both the Saudis and Turks needed to provide the facts of what happened to him.

Trump’s first foreign trip as president was to Saudi Arabia, and he has pinned much of his foreign policy approach in the Middle East on strengthening U.S. ties to Riyadh while isolating Iran.

Over the weekend, Trump defended a pending arms deal with Saudi Arabia, which he values at $110 billion, as something that should still go forward and would be good for the U.S. economy. 

On Tuesday, he described news reports about his business ties to Saudi Arabia as “fake news.” 

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob CorkerRobert (Bob) Phillips CorkerMcConnell, Romney vie for influence over Trump's trial RNC says ex-Trump ambassador nominee's efforts 'to link future contributions to an official action' were 'inappropriate' Lindsey Graham basks in the impeachment spotlight MORE (R-Tenn.) last week joined members on his panel in a letter to Trump triggering the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, which requires the president to investigate whether a foreign person is responsible for an illegal killing or torture and report back to Congress within 120 days. 

If Saudi officials are found to have grossly violated Khashoggi’s human rights, the Magnitsky Act would pave the way for the administration to implement sanctions against those individuals.  

The letter was also signed by Graham and Sen. Patrick LeahyPatrick Joseph LeahyOvernight Defense: Senate votes to rein in Trump war powers on Iran | Pentagon shifting .8B to border wall | US, Taliban negotiate seven-day 'reduction in violence' Pentagon transferring .8 billion to border wall 'Birds of Prey' movie reveals Harley Quinn voted for Sanders MORE (Vt.), the chairman and top-ranking Democrat on the State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs Appropriations Subcommittee. 

Reps. Ed RoyceEdward (Ed) Randall RoyceThe most expensive congressional races of the last decade Mystery surrounds elusive sanctions on Russia Hillicon Valley: Lawmakers struggle to understand Facebook's Libra project | EU hits Amazon with antitrust probe | New cybersecurity concerns over census | Robocall, election security bills head to House floor | Privacy questions over FaceApp MORE (R-Calif.) and Eliot EngelEliot Lance EngelOvernight Defense: Army says it isn't investigating Vindman | White House outlines legal justification for Soleimani strike | Service member dies in Africa Trump administration outlines legal justification for Soleimani strike Pompeo to testify on Iran in February MORE (D-N.Y.), the chairman and top-ranking member on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, sent a letter to Trump on Friday expressing support for the Senate’s action. 

A Senate Democratic aide said if the administration ignored Magnitsky Act requirements, “there are legislative venues for us to mandate that they implement sanctions.” The aide said the first round of sanctions would likely target individuals. 

Senators are also expected to force votes on blocking arms sales to Saudi Arabia or distancing the United States from the war in Yemen as soon as next month.

Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersDemocrats redefine center as theirs collapses Speculation swirls around whether Bloomberg will make Las Vegas debate stage Pelosi: 'I'm not counting Joe Biden out' MORE (I-Vt.), who has been critical of Saudi Arabia for years, said he will try to get a vote once the Senate returns from recess on a resolution that would end U.S. support for the war in Yemen, bolster congressional oversight of military authorizations and “show the Saudis that they do not have a blank check to continue human rights violations.”

Sens. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulPelosi names first-ever House whistleblower ombudsman director The Hill's Morning Report — AG Barr, GOP senators try to rein Trump in Overnight Defense: Senate votes to rein in Trump war powers on Iran | Pentagon shifting .8B to border wall | US, Taliban negotiate seven-day 'reduction in violence' MORE (R-Ky.) and Chris MurphyChristopher (Chris) Scott MurphyLawmakers wary as US on cusp of initial deal with Taliban Democratic senators ask FDA to ban device used to shock disabled students Senators to meet with Zelensky after impeachment trial MORE (D-Conn.) have said they will try to block the next arms sale to Saudi Arabia. There isn’t a sale currently pending before Congress, but lawmakers have 30 days once they’ve been notified by the administration to try to block a sale. 

Paul, a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, however, did not sign the letter to Trump triggering the Magnitsky Act.

The Senate has rejected multiple attempts in recent years to prevent arms sales to Saudi Arabia or cut off U.S. support for Saudi Arabia’s efforts in Yemen, despite long-simmering frustration in Congress. 

The last attempt, in March, to end the U.S. support for Saudi Arabia’s bombing operations in Yemen narrowly failed and a June 2017 effort to block part of the $110 billion U.S.-Saudi arms deal fell short by four votes. 

But several Republican senators who voted against the 2017 resolution have said pausing arms sales to Saudi Arabia should be discussed in the aftermath of Khashoggi’s disappearance.