GOP leaders hesitant to challenge Trump on Saudi Arabia

Republican leaders in Congress are taking a cautious approach in their response to mounting evidence that the Saudi royal family is linked to the suspected death of U.S.-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

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.) and 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.) said they will wait on the results of an investigation by the Trump administration into Khashoggi’s disappearance, a process that could take weeks or months.

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Troubling new details emerged Wednesday when an unnamed Turkish official told media outlets that Khashoggi’s fingers were severed before he was dismembered and killed in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

The official told reporters that Saudi consul Mohammed al-Otaibi was heard speaking on a taped recording of Khashoggi’s detention and subsequent execution that Khashoggi allegedly recorded on a smart watch and transmitted to locations outside the consulate as the incident unfolded.

GOP leaders are in a difficult position because they don’t want to pick a fight with 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 over his Middle East policy, into which Saudi Arabia figures prominently, less than three weeks from the Nov. 6 midterm elections.

Trump has repeatedly deflected questions about the Saudi royal family’s involvement in Khashoggi’s disappearance, despite reports that one of the suspects is a close companion of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who’s considered the day-to-day leader of Saudi Arabia. Other suspects are said by witnesses to be part of the crown prince’s security detail.

Trump on Tuesday compared what he called the rush to judgement against Saudi Arabia to the allegations leveled 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 during his confirmation process in the Senate.

Still, the administration appears to have responded to some of the pressure coming from lawmakers and elsewhere.

The president dispatched 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 to Saudi Arabia at the start of the week to meet with the Saudi royal family to find out what they knew about the incident.

Trump spoke by phone for 20 minutes with Saudi King Salman on Monday, and on the following day he talked with the crown prince while he was meeting with Pompeo.

Trump suggested after speaking with the king that “rogue killers” may have been responsible for Khashoggi’s death and tweeted Tuesday that the crown prince “totally denied any knowledge of what took place in their consulate.”

GOP leaders have been reluctant to clash with Trump during an election year, knowing that polls show he remains tremendously popular with the party’s base.

But some members of their conferences -- Sens. 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 (Fla.), a prominent member of the Foreign Relations Committee, and 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 (S.C.), one of Trump’s closest allies and chairman of the State and Foreign Operations Appropriations Subcommittee -- are pressing for Congress to act independently.

Others are cautioning against taking precipitous action that could undercut relations with Saudi Arabia, a pillar of Trump’s Middle East policy.

Senior White House adviser Jared KushnerJared Corey KushnerAbraham Accords: New hope for peace in Middle East Tenants in Kushner building file lawsuit alleging dangerous living conditions Trump hosts Israel, UAE, Bahrain for historic signing MORE, the president’s son-in-law, has cultivated a relationship with the crown prince, a rising political power in the Saudi royal family.

"I'm open to having Congress sit down with the president, if this all turns out to be true, and it looks like it is ... and saying how can we express our condemnation without blowing up the Middle East," Sen. John KennedyJohn Neely KennedyMORE (R-La.) told reporters on Capitol Hill Wednesday.

Any action in the Senate would have to go through 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.), who has kept a low profile on the controversy since last week.

Senate GOP sources said they were not aware of any recent conversations between Corker and McConnell on the issue.

McConnell told reporters on Wednesday that he would not move forward on anything until the administration, led by Pompeo, completes an investigation into Khashoggi’s disappearance.

The Kentucky Republican told television news outlets invited to a roundtable interview that he couldn’t imagine Congress not responding if senior Saudi officials are found to have killed Khashoggi, but cautioned that nothing will happen until he hears from Pompeo.

“I want to hear what Mike has to say before I decide what I think we ought to do,” he said, according to NBC News, which attended the event.

His GOP colleagues also said Pompeo should take the lead.

“Listen, we have a tremendous relationship with the Saudis. They're important to us. We're important to them,” Sen. Orrin HatchOrrin Grant HatchBottom line Bottom line Senate GOP divided over whether they'd fill Supreme Court vacancy  MORE (Utah), the most senior member of the Senate GOP conference, told reporters Wednesday.

“But we have to be honest and watch these things very carefully and move in a correct and honest way,” he added. “So I think our administration is doing that, so let's hope that that's the case.”

A Senate Republican aide said the main response from Congress for now is the letter Corker and other members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee sent to Trump last week triggering the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, which gives the administration 120 days to investigate and report its findings to Capitol Hill.

If that investigation finds that senior Saudi officials killed or tortured Khashoggi, the law empowers the administration to implement targeted sanctions on those individuals responsible.

“The immediate response was the letter last week,” said the aide, who was not aware of any other imminent action.

A second Senate Republican aide said members of the Foreign Relations Committee have been in touch with the State Department to find out more details about the ongoing investigation but haven't received much information.

Ryan, in a Wednesday interview with “CBS This Morning,” said he was open to sanctions but indicated that any action from Congress would come under the auspices of the Magnitsky Act.

“We have sanction laws on the book for situations like this. So I think these are the things we will be looking at in Congress,” Ryan said in his first extended comments about the Saudi crisis.

“I’ve got to say this was supposed to be a new Saudi government that was going to be reforming, opening up transparency, moderating Islam,” he added. “And to see something like this could be a real setback.”

A congressional aide told The Hill that Ryan “is focused on the Magnitsky Act.”

House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman 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 Rep. 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 (N.Y.), the panel’s top-ranking Democrat, sent a letter to the president Friday supporting the Senate’s action.

Democratic Rep. Lloyd DoggettLloyd Alton DoggettTrump order on drug prices faces long road to finish line Trump signs new executive order aimed at lowering drug prices Overnight Health Care: Fauci says family has faced threats | Moderna to charge to a dose for its vaccine | NYC adding checkpoints to enforce quarantine MORE (Texas) and Republican Rep. Walter JonesWalter Beaman JonesExperts warn Georgia's new electronic voting machines vulnerable to potential intrusions, malfunctions Georgia restores 22,000 voter registrations after purge Stacey Abrams group files emergency motion to stop Georgia voting roll purge MORE (N.C.) are co-leading a letter calling for a full investigation into Khashoggi’s disappearance and calling for sanctions against individuals responsible for his suspected death in accordance with the Magnitsky Act.

Separately, Rep. Bonnie Watson ColemanBonnie Watson ColemanDemocrats smell blood with new DHS whistleblower complaint New Jersey incumbents steamroll progressive challengers in primaries New Jersey Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman wins Democratic primary MORE (D-N.J.) sent a letter to 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 on Wednesday urging him to skip a major finance conference being hosted in Riyadh next week.

That letter has been signed by at least 11 Democrats, including Reps. Earl BlumenauerEarl BlumenauerAhead of a coronavirus vaccine, Mexico's drug pricing to have far-reaching impacts on Americans Trump threatens to double down on Portland in other major cities Federal agents deployed to Portland did not have training in riot control: NYT MORE (Ore.), Yvette ClarkeYvette Diane ClarkeLawmakers call for small business aid at all levels of government The Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by Facebook - Washington on edge amid SCOTUS vacancy The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Facebook - Top tech executives testify in blockbuster antitrust hearing MORE (N.Y.), Raul Grijalva (Ariz.), Alcee HastingsAlcee (Judge) Lamar HastingsFlorida Democrat introduces bill to recognize Puerto Rico statehood referendum Poisoning of Putin opponent could test US-Moscow relationship Florida county official apologizes for social media post invoking Hitler  MORE (Fla.), Ro KhannaRohit (Ro) KhannaOvernight Defense: Appeals court revives House lawsuit against military funding for border wall | Dems push for limits on transferring military gear to police | Lawmakers ask for IG probe into Pentagon's use of COVID-19 funds On The Money: Half of states deplete funds for Trump's 0 unemployment expansion | EU appealing ruling in Apple tax case | House Democrats include more aid for airlines in coronavirus package The movement to reform animal agriculture has reached a tipping point MORE (Calif.), Jim McGovern (Mass.), Frank Pallone (N.J.), Jamie RaskinJamin (Jamie) Ben RaskinOVERNIGHT ENERGY:  House passes sweeping clean energy bill | Pebble Mine CEO resigns over secretly recorded comments about government officials  | Corporations roll out climate goals amid growing pressure to deliver On The Money: House panel pulls Powell into partisan battles | New York considers hiking taxes on the rich | Treasury: Trump's payroll tax deferral won't hurt Social Security House panel pulls Powell into partisan battles over pandemic MORE (Md.) and Filemon VelaFilemon Bartolome VelaHispanic Caucus asks for Department of Labor meeting on COVID in meatpacking plants The Hill's Campaign Report: Biden builds big lead in battleground Florida Texas Democrat proposes COVID-19 victims' compensation fund MORE (Texas).

“Considering the seriousness of the accused crimes, we must request and review the details surrounding the incident before moving forward in our bilateral relationship with the Saudi government,” Coleman wrote. “Pending a thorough investigation that provides truthful answers to Mr. Khashoggi’s whereabouts, I encourage you to suspend any trips and meetings with Saudi officials.”

A slew of companies such as Google, Uber, JPMorgan Chase and Ford have pulled out of the conference following the controversy surrounding Khashoggi’s disappearance after walking into the Saudi consulate on Oct. 2.

Rubio has been one of the most outspoken proponents of congress acting independently of Trump if necessary.

He told CNN on Tuesday that Congress would “act in a bipartisan way.”

He didn’t make any additional statements on Wednesday, and a Republican source familiar with Rubio’s schedule said he has been focused on responding to the devastation caused by Hurricane Michael in Florida’s panhandle last week.

A spokesman for Graham, who said Tuesday that he wanted to “sanction the hell out of Saudi Arabia,” did not have anything to add on Wednesday regarding the senator’s position.

Graham, however, has been in conversation with 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, about moving forward with a bipartisan proposal on U.S.-Saudi policy.

Cardin, speaking on a press call Wednesday, described the discussions as "active."

Scott Wong contributed.