Senate

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 McConnell (R-Ky.) and Speaker Paul Ryan (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.

{mosads}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 Trump 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 Kavanaugh 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 Pompeo 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 Rubio (Fla.), a prominent member of the Foreign Relations Committee, and Lindsey Graham (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 Kushner, 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 Kennedy (R-La.) told reporters on Capitol Hill Wednesday.

Any action in the Senate would have to go through Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (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 Hatch (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 Royce (R-Calif.) and Rep. Eliot Engel (N.Y.), the panel’s top-ranking Democrat, sent a letter to the president Friday supporting the Senate’s action.

Democratic Rep. Lloyd Doggett (Texas) and Republican Rep. Walter Jones (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 Coleman (D-N.J.) sent a letter to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin 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 Blumenauer (Ore.), Yvette Clarke (N.Y.), Raul Grijalva (Ariz.), Alcee Hastings (Fla.), Ro Khanna (Calif.), Jim McGovern (Mass.), Frank Pallone (N.J.), Jamie Raskin (Md.) and Filemon Vela (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 Cardin (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.

Tags Alcee Hastings Ben Cardin Bob Corker Bonnie Watson Coleman Brett Kavanaugh Donald Trump Earl Blumenauer Ed Royce Eliot Engel Filemon Vela Jamie Raskin Jared Kushner John Kennedy Lindsey Graham Lloyd Doggett Marco Rubio Mike Pompeo Mitch McConnell Orrin Hatch Paul Ryan Ro Khanna Steven Mnuchin Walter Jones Yvette Clarke

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