Senators pledge action on Saudi journalist’s disappearance

Senators pledge action on Saudi journalist’s disappearance
© Getty Images

Senators from both parties appeared close to rare bipartisan consensus on Sunday in warning that Congress will take action against Saudi Arabia in the presumed death of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

While lawmakers voiced a desire to wait for the results of an investigation before determining the proper punishment, Sens. Jeff FlakeJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FlakeLindsey Graham basks in the impeachment spotlight Kelly, McSally virtually tied in Arizona Senate race: poll The Hill's 12:30 Report — Presented by Nareit — White House cheers Republicans for storming impeachment hearing MORE (R-Ariz.) and Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioHouse Democrat asks USDA to halt payouts to Brazilian meatpacker under federal probe Supreme Court weighs lawsuit pitting climate scientist against skeptics Senate passes legislation supporting Hong Kong protesters MORE (R-Fla.) suggested that it’s becoming increasingly likely that Khashoggi was killed in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

“I don't think we should continue as business as usual, until we know exactly what's happened here, because what we do know is this: He walked into that consulate, and he never came out,” Rubio said on CNN’s "State of the Union."


"So, the only two things that could have happened is, he's alive and somehow still in there, or he's dead and the Saudis are the ones who did it," Rubio continued. "There's no other explanation for it, because if there was video of him leaving, they would have shown it by now." 

Flake said on ABC’s “This Week” that "there sure doesn’t seem to be" any explanation that would rule out Saudi involvement in Khashoggi’s disappearance. 

"Their explanation that their closed-circuit television just streamed and didn’t record just isn’t plausible," Flake said, echoing other lawmakers. "There’s just no good explanation and I think they know it."

The senators' comments reflect a growing consensus within the Senate that the Saudis played a role in the disappearance and suspected murder of Khashoggi, an American resident who is a Washington Post columnist and outspoken critic of Saudi leadership. The journalist was last seen nearly two weeks ago entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. 

Turkish authorities have said they have video and audio that proves Khashoggi was killed in the consulate.

President TrumpDonald John TrumpWatergate prosecutor says that Sondland testimony was 'tipping point' for Trump In private moment with Trump, Justice Kennedy pushed for Kavanaugh Supreme Court nomination: book Obama: 'Everybody needs to chill out' about differences between 2020 candidates MORE and other U.S. officials have refrained from declaring Saudi Arabia was responsible in Khashoggi’s death.

The incident has strained U.S.-Saudi relations, placed renewed focus on U.S. weapons sales to Saudi Arabia and prompted fresh scrutiny of the "reformer" image Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman fostered for himself since taking power in 2017.

While Trump has vowed "severe punishment" for Saudi Arabia if the country is found to have played a role in Khashoggi’s disappearance, lawmakers on Sunday indicated that Congress will take it upon itself to act. 

"I believe the Trump administration will do something," Rubio said. "The president has said that. But, if he doesn't, Congress will. That, I can tell you with 100 percent certainty."

Rubio was hesitant to offer specifics, and suggested that the punishment should be meted out once an investigation can determine what took place. Offering a concrete response at this point would limit the U.S. unnecessarily, he argued.

Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersKamala Harris receives new Iowa endorsements after debate performance Wasserman Schultz makes bid for House Appropriations Committee gavel Overnight Health Care: Crunch time for Congress on surprise medical bills | CDC confirms 47 vaping-related deaths | Massachusetts passes flavored tobacco, vaping products ban MORE (I-Vt.) called the potential killing of Khashoggi "unacceptable," and proposed on CNN that the U.S. should reassess weapons sales and support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen. 

The Vermont senator noted that he and Sen. Mike LeeMichael (Mike) Shumway LeeTrump steps up GOP charm offensive as impeachment looms Senate approves stopgap bill to prevent shutdown GOP divided over impeachment trial strategy MORE (R-Utah) introduced a resolution earlier this year calling for the U.S. to end its involvement with the war in Yemen, which has led to thousands of civilian deaths. The measure received 44 votes, effectively killing it. 

Senators on the Foreign Relations Committee last week voted to invoke sanctions that require Trump to conduct an investigation into Khashoggi's disappearance. The move came after days of outcry from lawmakers over the dissident's whereabouts, and warnings that his disappearance could provoke a fundamental change in the U.S.-Saudi relationship.

While lawmakers have emphasized that nothing should be off the table, Trump has expressed reluctance to alter existing arms deals between the U.S. and the Saudis as part of any potential punishment.

"I'll tell you what I don't want to do, I don't want to hurt jobs. I don't want to lose an order like that. And you know what, there are other ways of punishing," Trump said in a "60 Minutes" interview to be broadcast late Sunday.

Saudi Arabia issued a forceful response earlier Sunday, rejecting "any threats" and "false accusations," and pledging to retaliate against any actions the U.S. takes.

"What has been circulating in terms of supposed orders to kill him are outright lies and baseless allegations against the kingdom’s government,” Saudi Interior Minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Saud said Saturday, referring to Khashoggi.

The Trump administration is under additional pressure as Treasury Secretary Steven MnuchinSteven Terner MnuchinTrump signs short-term spending bill to avert shutdown Trump awards Jon Voight, others National Medal of Arts Senate approves stopgap bill to prevent shutdown MORE is set to travel to Saudi Arabia next week for an economic conference.

"I don't think he should go," Rubio said. "I don't think any of our government officials should be going and pretending as it's business as usual, until we know exactly what's happened here."

Top economic adviser Larry Kudlow told ABC that Mnuchin still plans to attend the conference, arguing that the subject of ending terrorist financing is too important to skip, barring additional information coming forward.

Amid concerns over whether the president may not follow through on his threat to punish the Saudis, Kudlow added that he expects Trump to review an investigation and its findings this week.

"All I would say is with respect to the Khashoggi story, which is a tragedy for Khashoggi among other people, believe what the president says when he says we will take very tough action if the allegations of Saudi interference prove to be the case," Kudlow said.