Senate confirms Trump's pick for ambassador to Saudi Arabia

The Senate confirmed President TrumpDonald John TrumpSarah Huckabee Sanders becomes Fox News contributor The US-Iranian scuffle over a ship is a sideshow to events in the Gulf South Korea: US, North Korea to resume nuclear talks 'soon' MORE's nominee to be the U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia on Wednesday, a position that has been vacant since before Trump took office in 2017.
 
Senators voted 92-7 to confirm John Abizaid to the post, nearly five months after Trump announced his intention to nominate the retired general amid an uptick in tensions between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia.
 
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The vacancy in the ambassador post became a point of contention in the wake of Washington Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi's slaying in a Saudi Consultant in Turkey in October, which put a strain on U.S.-Saudi relations.
 
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellMcConnell rejects Democrats' 'radical movement' to abolish filibuster Hickenlooper announces Senate bid Trump orders elimination of student loan debt for thousands of disabled veterans MORE (R-Ky.) knocked Democrats last month during the Senate's debate on the Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen, saying Abizaid's nomination was being "held up." 
 
"If we want to solve problems in the Middle East through diplomacy, we'll need to confirm diplomats," McConnell said. 
 
Trump has himself repeatedly vented frustration over the slow pace of confirmation for his ambassador picks, including during a recent closed-door lunch with Republicans where he urged them to work quickly to fill vacancies in his administration. 
 
The president alleged in a tweet late last year that other countries were calling wanting to know why Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerJewish Democratic congresswoman and veteran blasts Trump's 'disloyalty' comments Schumer says Trump encouraging anti-Semites Saagar Enjeti: Biden's latest blunder; Krystal Ball: Did Schumer blow our chance to beat McConnell? MORE (D-N.Y.) wasn't approving his ambassador nominations. Trump also reportedly directly called out Sen. Bob MenendezRobert (Bob) MenendezPelosi warns Mnuchin to stop 'illegal' .3B cut to foreign aid House passes temporary immigration protections for Venezuelans Senate panel advances bipartisan bill to lower drug prices amid GOP blowback MORE (N.J.), the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, during the closed-door lunch with Republicans. 
 
Menendez fired back at Trump last week, saying that he would support Abizaid's nomination. 
 
"No one wants to see the State Department vested with all the resources it needs to ... effectively conduct American foreign policy, including qualified and capable staff, more than I do," Menendez said during a Senate floor speech.
  
However, he added that the Senate can't confirm nominees if the Trump administration hasn't nominated someone and knocked the president over the pace of making nominations.
 
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"The Trump administration took nearly two years before it even bothered to nominate Gen. Abizaid, leaving a gaping hole in our diplomatic posture to Saudi Arabia and the region," he said. "To go nearly two years without putting forward a nominee is a failure of leadership pure and simple."
 
Joseph Westphal was the last Senate-confirmed ambassador to Saudi Arabia under the Obama administration and left the post in early January 2017. Christopher Henzel has since served as chargé d'affaires at the U.S. Embassy in Riyadh. 
 
Abizaid served as the head of U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) and spent his military career leading missions in Iraq, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo. He also served as deputy commander of CENTCOM from 2003-2007. 
 
His confirmation comes as the U.S.-Saudi relationship has remained strained on Capitol Hill.
 
Congress passed a resolution forcing Trump to pull troops in or "affecting" Yemen within 30 days unless they are fighting al Qaeda. The White House has pledged that Trump will veto the measure, setting him up to issue his second veto in roughly a month.
 
Lawmakers are also frustrated by the Trump administration's response to Khashoggi's death. Khashoggi, a Virginia resident, was last seen entering the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2.
 
The Saudi government initially denied being involved in the disappearance, before backpedaling and saying Khashoggi had been killed as part of an interrogation gone wrong. 
 
The reasoning has been met with heavy skepticism on Capitol Hill, where senators believe Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman is responsible for the death. 
 
Trump, who has argued that "we may never know" the facts of Khashoggi's death, spoke with the crown prince this week to discuss Iran and the "importance of human rights issues," according to a read out from the White House.
 
The State Department also named 16 people on Monday that it says had a role in Khashoggi's killing. Those individuals and their immediate families will not be allowed to enter the United States. 
 
Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioGOP group calls on Republican senators to stand up to McConnell on election security in new ads What the gun safety debate says about Washington Trump moves forward with F-16 sale to Taiwan opposed by China MORE (R-Fla.), a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, said he welcomed the administration's move but the State Department needed to make a determination on the crown prince's involvement, as senators have been urging them to do for months.
 
“While I’m glad the administration belatedly designated for new visa bans Saud al-Qahtani and other individuals complicit in Jamal Khashoggi’s assassination at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, I urge it to comply fully with the Global Magnitsky Act’s legal requirements and … make its overdue determination about Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s responsibility in Khashoggi’s brutal murder," Rubio said.