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 McConnellThe Hill's Morning Report - Trump says no legislation until Dems end probes Threat of impeachment takes oxygen out of 2019 agenda Chances for disaster aid deal slip amid immigration fight MORE (R-Ky.) and Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanAmash storm hits Capitol Hill Debate with Donald Trump? Just say no Ex-Trump adviser says GOP needs a better health-care message for 2020 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.

ADVERTISEMENT

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 TrumpFeinstein, Iranian foreign minister had dinner amid tensions: report The Hill's Morning Report - Trump says no legislation until Dems end probes Harris readies a Phase 2 as she seeks to rejuvenate campaign 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 KavanaughGraham urges Trump not to abandon infrastructure talks with Democrats 2020 Dems break political taboos by endorsing litmus tests Maker of 'F*ck Trump' lipstick vows to donate proceeds to reproductive rights groups 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 PompeoFeinstein, Iranian foreign minister had dinner amid tensions: report Pentagon to present White House with plans to deploy up to 10K troops to Middle East: report Senate panel rejects requiring Congress sign off before Iran strike 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 RubioAnother VPOTUS tries for POTUS: What does history tell us? Tensions swirl around Iran as administration to brief Congress Tensions swirl around Iran as administration to brief Congress MORE (Fla.), a prominent member of the Foreign Relations Committee, and Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamThreat of impeachment takes oxygen out of 2019 agenda Graham urges Trump not to abandon infrastructure talks with Democrats Congress, White House near deal on spending, debt limit 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 KushnerJudge delivers second blow to Trump over financial records Tillerson meets with House Foreign Affairs Committee Trump adviser expected to leave White House, join Juul 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 CorkerJeff Daniels blasts 'cowardice' of Senate Republicans against Trump Corker: 'I just don't' see path to challenge Trump in 2020 Ex-GOP Sen. Corker: Trump primary would be 'good thing for our country' 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 HatchTrump gambles in push for drug import proposal Biden's role in Anita Hill hearings defended by witness not allowed to testify 'Congress' worst tax idea ever'? Hardly. 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 RoyceK Street giants scoop up coveted ex-lawmakers Former GOP chairman Royce joins lobbying shop Lawmakers propose banning shark fin trade MORE (R-Calif.) and Rep. Eliot EngelEliot Lance EngelTillerson meets with House Foreign Affairs Committee Hoyer: Dems will move quickly on anti-Israel boycott bill Trump faces criticism for hosting Hungary's leader 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 DoggettDemocrats seize on IRS memo in Trump tax battle Treasury Department rejects Dem subpoena for Trump tax returns On The Money: New tariffs on China pose major risk for Trump | Senators sound alarm over looming budget battles | Ocasio-Cortez, Sanders team up against payday lenders MORE (Texas) and Republican Rep. Walter JonesWalter Beaman JonesThe Hill's Morning Report - Pelosi remains firm despite new impeachment push Ex-Greenville mayor wins Dem primary in North Carolina, GOP candidates head to runoff North Carolina reporter says there could be 'new crop' of GOP candidates in 9th Congressional District race 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 ColemanOvernight Energy: Interior chief says climate response falls on Congress | Bernhardt insists officials will complete offshore drilling plans | Judge rules EPA must enforce Obama landfill pollution rules Trump Interior chief says climate change response falls on Congress Interior chief says offshore drilling plan not 'indefinitely sidelined' MORE (D-N.J.) sent a letter to Treasury Secretary Steven MnuchinSteven Terner MnuchinThe Hill's Morning Report - Trump says no legislation until Dems end probes Democrats seize on IRS memo in Trump tax battle No agreement on budget caps in sight ahead of Memorial Day recess 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 BlumenauerWHIP LIST: Democrats who support an impeachment inquiry against President Trump Top House Dem calls to launch impeachment inquiry if McGahn skips testimony Hillicon Valley: Trump signs order to protect US networks from Chinese tech | Huawei downplays order | Trump declines to join effort against online extremism | Facebook restricts livestreaming | FCC proposes new tool against robocalls MORE (Ore.), Yvette ClarkeYvette Diane ClarkeDem lawmakers urge FCC to scrutinize broadcast workforce diversity Hillicon Valley: House votes to reinstate net neutrality rules | GOP lawmakers lay into Twitter, Facebook over censorship claims | Amazon workers push company on climate | Bill targets algorithmic bias | Yahoo to pay 7M in breach settlement Dems introduce bill targeting bias in algorithms MORE (N.Y.), Raul Grijalva (Ariz.), Alcee HastingsAlcee (Judge) Lamar HastingsNFL players: Corporal punishment in schools is unacceptable Some Senate Dems see Ocasio-Cortez as weak spokeswoman for party Florida lawmaker diagnosed with pancreatic cancer MORE (Fla.), Ro KhannaRohit (Ro) KhannaProgressive Democrat says Trump victory shed light on divide between Silicon Valley, rural US Democratic rep says targeted sanctions on Huawei are 'reasonable' The Hill's Morning Report - Pelosi remains firm despite new impeachment push MORE (Calif.), Jim McGovern (Mass.), Frank Pallone (N.J.), Jamie RaskinJamin (Jamie) Ben RaskinHouse progressive: Pelosi 'has it right' on impeachment House Democrats press leaders to start Trump impeachment WHIP LIST: Democrats who support an impeachment inquiry against President Trump MORE (Md.) and Filemon VelaFilemon Bartolome VelaWHIP LIST: Democrats who support an impeachment inquiry against President Trump Border Dems introduce bill to process refugee claims in Central America How Pelosi is punishing some critics while rewarding others 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 CardinOn The Money: GOP angst grows over Trump's trade war | Trump promises help for 'Patriot Farmers' | Markets rebound | CBO founding director Alice Rivlin dies | Senate to vote on disaster aid bill next week Senators offer bipartisan retirement savings bill Top Finance Dem offers bill to help those repaying student loans save for retirement 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.