Corker’s imminent departure puts Saudi sanctions in doubt

Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), one of the most outspoken critics of President Trump in the Senate Republican Conference, is due to relinquish the Foreign Relations Committee gavel to Sen. Jim Risch (R-Idaho), a Trump loyalist who will be much more likely to defend the president next year.

The looming leadership change on the committee could make it more difficult for Corker to press the administration on its Saudi Arabia policy, which is under increased scrutiny following the death of U.S.-based Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Corker on Sunday said “there has to be punishment and a price paid for that” if Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is found to be responsible for Khashoggi’s killing.

{mosads}But Republican insiders said sanctions against Crown Prince Mohammed or leading members of the royal family are uncertain given Trump’s desire to maintain good relations with Saudi Arabia. They also cited Corker’s diminishing power with the administration and the waning influence of the Foreign Relations Committee in recent years.

Trump this week called the Saudi government’s explanation of Khashoggi’s death “one of the worst in the history of cover-ups” but hasn’t held the crown prince responsible. The president has put Saudi Arabia at the center of his Middle East strategy that’s focused primarily on isolating Iran.

Corker, who is slated to retire in early January, will have a difficult time pushing the administration to take action against Crown Prince Mohammed or other high-ranking members of the royal family in the busy lame-duck session after the Nov. 6 midterms, according to GOP sources.

“I’d say it’s pretty much nonexistent,” an administration official said of Corker’s influence over the White House, citing the senator’s impending departure.

Saudi Arabia has threatened to retaliate if hit with U.S. sanctions, and the Saudi-based television station Al Arabiya has warned of an “economic disaster.”

A Senate GOP aide said Corker “hasn’t done himself any favors by being so critical of the president” and at times has had “wobbly” relations with fellow Republicans who view some of his public clashes with Trump as provocative.

But Corker still has some powerful allies in his corner when it comes to taking a tough approach to Saudi Arabia, namely Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), the chairman of the State and Foreign Operations Subcommittee, and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), one of the party’s most effective communicators.

He also has leverage over the administration in the form of 25 to 30 State Department nominees the Senate could confirm before the end of the year. If they aren’t confirmed by then, they would need to be nominated again during the next Congress for Senate consideration.

“If you stay engaged, especially if you’re the chairman of a committee …. it keeps you pretty relevant,” said another GOP aide.

Corker got seven nominees confirmed in the wrap-up proceedings just before the Senate recessed for the midterm elections, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo expressed his appreciation, according to a GOP aide familiar with the conversation.

But Corker continues to be a gadfly to Trump.

He criticized the administration last week for canceling an intelligence briefing about the circumstances of Khashoggi’s death at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul earlier this month.

And last week he complained that the administration had “clamped down” on intelligence and indicated it wouldn’t share more information with the Foreign Relations Committee in the near future.

An aide to another Republican member of the Foreign Relations panel also said the intelligence community and the State Department had not been responsive to requests for more information.

Corker’s complaints improved the information flow somewhat. A senior Foreign Relations Committee aide was briefed at the end of last week and again on Tuesday about the investigation into Khashoggi’s death.

Pompeo briefed Corker over the phone on Saturday, according a person familiar with the conversation.

The White House also issued a statement insisting that it had not directed intelligence officials to stop providing updates related to Saudi Arabia to members of Congress. 

But aside from those concessions, the White House sees little incentive to cooperate with Corker, whom the president and his advisers consider an unreliable ally who is quick to criticize Trump in a public fashion, said an administration official.

Next year promises a new dynamic when Risch is expected to become chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee if Republicans maintain their majority in the Senate in next month’s midterm elections.

The Idaho Republican has defended the administration from what he sees as media bias against Trump’s foreign policy accomplishments.

The administration official who spoke to The Hill said the president’s working relationship with Risch will be “more constructive,” describing the lawmaker as “much more of a Republican” compared to Corker, who the source said “probably would be criticizing any Republican president.”

Even so, Risch may be eclipsed by other prominent GOP voices on foreign policy, such as Graham and Rubio, who in recent days have successfully pressed Trump to take a tougher tone with Saudi Arabia.

The low point of the Corker-Trump relationship came a year ago when the senator called the White House an “adult day care center” after Trump tweeted that Corker “begged” him for an endorsement and “didn’t have the guts to run” without Trump’s support.

By contrast, Risch was outspoken earlier this year in defending Trump’s controversial meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, which the president has characterized as a success on multiple occasions.

Risch is viewed as a senator who is more likely to raise his differences with the president in private than in the press.

During an interview with CNN’s Erin Burnett, Risch said “give him a break” after the anchor expressed alarm that Trump said he trusted Kim, whom Burnett called a “murderous dictator.”

Risch argued that Trump deserved credit for re-establishing relations with North Korea and said someone “would have to be the most naive person on the face of the earth” to think that Trump would accept Kim’s claims without verification just because he expressed “trust” in the leader.

He reiterated his defense of Trump’s North Korea policy when he appeared on the PBS NewsHour in July.

When asked about Corker’s concerns about Trump’s summits with North Korea and Russia, Risch said, “Bob Corker is a really good friend of mine and I have great respect for his opinion, but he and I do differ significantly on a number of these issues.”

Risch also forcefully defended the president from allegations that his campaign colluded with Moscow during the 2016 election season, stating he reviewed “thousands” of documents as a member of the Senate Intelligence and Foreign Relations committees and found “there was no collusion and there’s been no evidence of collusion.”

Trump in May praised Risch at a financial reform bill signing ceremony as “great lawyer” and joked he was “one of the great lawyers — think I have to use you.”

A Corker ally said Risch is likely to run the committee differently.

“Every senator, and certainly chairman, has their own style and their own priorities,” the source said, noting that Corker is helping Risch make the transition to chairman. “I’m sure there will be differences in how they approach the job.”

Long designated as an “A” committee in terms of prestige when it comes to assigning members, the Foreign Relations panel has seen its influence wane since the late Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) chaired it from 1995 to 2001.

Helms flexed his muscles by aggressively using the committee to hold nominees to affect executive branch policy.

Since then, Republican and Democratic chairmen have ceded more and more authority to the White House.

“Congress doesn’t defend its institutional prerogatives vis-a-vis the president. We saw this with [former President] Obama; it’s not unique to Trump,” said James Wallner, a former Senate Republican aide and conservative scholar.

“The Foreign Relations Committee for a long time now has not been the site or locus for a lot of legislative activity because generally the president is stronger in this area,” he added. “Helms was the last aggressive foreign relations chairman on the Republican side.”

A former Republican aide on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee said Risch hasn’t been very active in scrutinizing Trump’s Middle East policy as chairman of the Near East, South Asia, Central Asia and Counterterrorism Subcommittee.

That panel held a hearing in March on “What’s Next for Lebanon?” but otherwise has let the full committee take the lead on Syria and other questions at the heart of Middle East security.

A spokeswoman for Risch declined to comment on how he would manage the full committee if he succeeds Corker as chairman.