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 TrumpBiden says voters should choose who nominates Supreme Court justice Trump, Biden will not shake hands at first debate due to COVID-19 Pelosi: Trump Supreme Court pick 'threatens' Affordable Care Act 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. 

ADVERTISEMENT

“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 PompeoWatchdog confirms State Dept. canceled award for journalist who criticized Trump Trump's push for win with Sudan amps up pressure on Congress  Putin nominated for Nobel Peace Prize 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 KavanaughSenate GOP set to vote on Trump's Supreme Court pick before election Conservative groups unleash ad blitz in support of Barrett's nomination Two Judiciary Democrats say they will not meet with Trump's Supreme Court pick 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 GrahamHarris slams Trump's Supreme Court pick as an attempt to 'destroy the Affordable Care Act' Sunday shows preview: Lawmakers prepare for SCOTUS confirmation hearings before election Confirmation hearing for Trump's Supreme Court pick to start Oct. 12 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 RubioSunday shows preview: Lawmakers prepare for SCOTUS confirmation hearings before election GOP lawmakers distance themselves from Trump comments on transfer of power McConnell pushes back on Trump: 'There will be an orderly transition' 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 CardinPelosi hopeful COVID-19 relief talks resume 'soon' Congress must finish work on popular conservation bill before time runs out PPP application window closes after coronavirus talks deadlock  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 FlakeHow fast population growth made Arizona a swing state Jeff Flake: Republicans 'should hold the same position' on SCOTUS vacancy as 2016 Republican former Michigan governor says he's voting for Biden MORE (Ariz.), Todd YoungTodd Christopher YoungSenate GOP eyes early exit Why the US should rely more on strategy, not sanctions Davis: The Hall of Shame for GOP senators who remain silent on Donald Trump MORE (Ind.) and Rubio for Treasury Secretary Steven MnuchinSteven Terner MnuchinCentrist Democrats got their COVID bill, now they want a vote The Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by Facebook - Republicans lawmakers rebuke Trump on election On The Money: Anxious Democrats push for vote on COVID-19 aid | Pelosi, Mnuchin ready to restart talks | Weekly jobless claims increase | Senate treads close to shutdown deadline 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 McConnellHawley warns Schumer to steer clear of Catholic-based criticisms of Barrett Senate GOP set to vote on Trump's Supreme Court pick before election Harris slams Trump's Supreme Court pick as an attempt to 'destroy the Affordable Care Act' 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 RyanKenosha will be a good bellwether in 2020 At indoor rally, Pence says election runs through Wisconsin Juan Williams: Breaking down the debates 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 CorkerHas Congress captured Russia policy? Tennessee primary battle turns nasty for Republicans Cheney clashes with Trump 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 LeahyBipartisan representatives demand answers on expired surveillance programs Democrats shoot down talk of expanding Supreme Court Battle over timing complicates Democratic shutdown strategy MORE (Vt.), the chairman and top-ranking Democrat on the State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs Appropriations Subcommittee. 

Reps. Ed RoyceEdward (Ed) Randall RoyceThe 'extraordinary rendition' of a US Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient, 'Hotel Rwanda' hero Gil Cisneros to face Young Kim in rematch of 2018 House race in California The most expensive congressional races of the last decade MORE (R-Calif.) and Eliot EngelEliot Lance EngelHouse panel halts contempt proceedings against Pompeo after documents turned over Engel subpoenas US global media chief Michael Pack The Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by The Air Line Pilots Association - Pence lauds Harris as 'experienced debater'; Trump, Biden diverge over debate prep 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 SandersTrump, Biden will not shake hands at first debate due to COVID-19 Sanders tells Maher 'there will be a number of plans' to remove Trump if he loses Sirota reacts to report of harassment, doxing by Harris supporters 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 PaulRon Paul hospitalized in Texas The Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by Facebook - Trump previews SCOTUS nominee as 'totally brilliant' Rand Paul says he can't judge 'guilt or innocence' in Breonna Taylor case MORE (R-Ky.) and Chris MurphyChristopher (Chris) Scott MurphyDemocratic senator calls for 'more flexible' medical supply chain to counter pandemics The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Facebook - Don't expect a government check anytime soon GOP chairman to release interim report on Biden probe 'in about a week' 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.