GOP senators open door to tougher response on Saudi Arabia

GOP senators open door to tougher response on Saudi Arabia
© Greg Nash

Two key Republican senators, Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamGraham warns Trump on Taliban deal in Afghanistan: Learn from 'Obama's mistakes' Appropriators warn White House against clawing back foreign aid Trump meets with national security team on Afghanistan peace plan MORE (R-S.C.) and Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsCook Political Report moves Susan Collins Senate race to 'toss up' The Hill's Morning Report — Trump and the new Israel-'squad' controversy Trump crosses new line with Omar, Tlaib, Israel move MORE (R-Maine), are opening the door to a tougher response on Saudi Arabia as President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump watching 'very closely' as Portland braces for dueling protests WaPo calls Trump admin 'another threat' to endangered species Are Democrats turning Trump-like? MORE declines to crack down on the kingdom in light of the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Graham and Collins on Sunday both suggested Congress might need to take tougher action after the CIA found it has "high confidence" that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered the assassination of Khashoggi, whose death has incited an international diplomatic crisis.

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Trump last week issued a statement casting doubt on the CIA's conclusions, saying "maybe" the crown prince ordered Khashoggi's murder or "maybe he didn't." Trump in the statement lauded the kingdom as a "steadfast partner."

The CIA report's findings have not been made public but multiple lawmakers have been briefed on its contents.

"If the evidence is sufficient to conclude with high probability that [bin Salman] was complicit in this murder, then I will take steps to do a sense of the Senate resolution making that statement," Graham told Axios in a phone interview.

Graham has positioned himself as a Trump ally in the Senate. But his comments published on Sunday suggest he's willing to break with the president over the issue of Khashoggi, who was apparently brutally killed by Saudi agents in Istanbul. 

Khashoggi was a U.S.-based writer who often spoke out against the Saudi regime.

Graham told Axios that he and Sen. Bob MenendezRobert (Bob) MenendezHouse passes temporary immigration protections for Venezuelans Senate panel advances bipartisan bill to lower drug prices amid GOP blowback Democrats pledge to fight Trump detention policy during trip to border MORE (D-N.J.) will push for harsher sanctions against Saudi Arabia as punishment for the murder. The South Carolina Republican added that he hopes to sanction bin Salman himself.

Collins, a moderate member of the GOP, said it is a "grave mistake for the President to ignore the CIA’s widely reported assessment on the Khashoggi murder."

"If the President does not reconsider what actions our government should take toward the Saudi Government & MbS, Congress must act instead," Collins tweeted on Sunday

Members of both parties have widely criticized Trump's decision to double down on the diplomatic and financial ties between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia in light of Khashoggi's assassination. 

Lawmakers have also started to speak out more frequently against the U.S.'s support for Saudi Arabia's presence in Yemen. International human rights monitors have called Yemen the world's largest humanitarian crisis, with millions displaced and starving and thousands killed in a bloody civil war that involves multiple countries. Investigations have found that U.S. weapons have been used to kill civilians in the country, including children.

Collins is one of the co-sponsors of the Saudi Accountability and Yemen Act, which would suspend weapons sales to Saudi Arabia, prohibit U.S. aircraft from refueling Saudi planes in the Yemen conflict, mandate sanctions on people responsible for Khashoggi’s death and require a report on human rights in Saudi Arabia.

Graham said his resolution would scrutinize bin Salman for his "very erratic and disruptive" behavior. 

"What I would also do in my resolution is also look at other behavior of MBS that has been very erratic and disruptive: the handling of the Yemen war, the bizarre episode with the prime minister from Lebanon and the embargo of Qatar without any consultation," Graham told Axios. 

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob CorkerRobert (Bob) Phillips CorkerTrump announces, endorses ambassador to Japan's Tennessee Senate bid Meet the key Senate player in GOP fight over Saudi Arabia Trump says he's 'very happy' some GOP senators have 'gone on to greener pastures' MORE (R-Tenn.) last week criticized the White House for moonlighting “as a public relations firm” for the crown prince. 

Corker and Menendez, the top-ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, also sent a letter to Trump late Tuesday asking the administration to investigate whether the crown prince was responsible for Khashoggi’s murder. 

--This report was updated on Nov. 26 at 5:43 a.m.