Lawmakers point fingers at Saudi crown prince in Khashoggi's death

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle expressed increasing confidence on Sunday that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is culpable in the death of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, even as the president defended the young leader.

"If he's gone forth and murdered this journalist, he's now crossed the line. And there has to be a punishment and a price paid for that," Sen Bob CorkerRobert (Bob) Phillips CorkerSasse’s jabs at Trump spark talk of primary challenger RNC votes to give Trump 'undivided support' ahead of 2020 Sen. Risch has unique chance to guide Trump on foreign policy MORE (R-Tenn.) said on CNN’s "State of the Union."

"I'm not rushing to judgment," he added. "Do I think he did it? Yes, I think he did it."

Corker, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was one of four prominent senators who indicated on Sunday shows that they believe the 33-year-old crown prince ordered Khashoggi’s killing. 

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"I feel certain that the crown prince was involved and that he directed this," Sen. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulOn unilateral executive action, Mitch McConnell was right — in 2014 Congress must step up to protect Medicare home health care Business, conservative groups slam Trump’s national emergency declaration MORE (R-Ky.) said on "Fox News Sunday."

"The crown prince has his fingerprints all over this," Sen. Dick DurbinRichard (Dick) Joseph DurbinDemocrats brush off GOP 'trolling' over Green New Deal Trump praises law enforcement response to shooting at Illinois business Five dead in shooting at manufacturing plant in Aurora, Illinois MORE (D-Ill.) said on NBC’s "Meet the Press."

"It looks like it based on the people who were involved in the actual act," Sen. Thom TillisThomas (Thom) Roland TillisDems ready aggressive response to Trump emergency order, as GOP splinters Business, conservative groups slam Trump’s national emergency declaration GOP senator dedicates heart photo to wife from Senate floor for Valentine's Day MORE (R-N.C.) said on NBC when asked if the crown prince ordered the killing.

Crown Prince Mohammed has faced growing scrutiny in recent weeks as Turkish investigators and U.S. lawmakers have attempted to piece together what happened to Khashoggi after he was last seen entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2. Turkish authorities reportedly have audio they say proves Khashoggi was killed and dismembered at the facility.

While the crown prince and his father, King Salman, initially denied knowing what happened to the journalist and outspoken critic of Saudi leadership, the kingdom announced on Friday that Khashoggi died in a physical altercation gone awry, and that it had detained 18 people in connection with the incident.

U.S. lawmakers balked at the explanation and have in recent days grown increasingly wary of the crown prince's leadership. They have noted that Mohammed has a history of lashing out at political opponents, such as when he detained other royals and prominent figures in Saudi Arabia last year to consolidate power under the guise of an anti-corruption campaign.

Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamCongress closer to forcing Trump’s hand on Saudi support Democrats brush off GOP 'trolling' over Green New Deal Warren: Officials have duty ‘to invoke 25th amendment’ if they think Trump is unfit MORE (R-S.C.) said last week that Mohammed — known colloquially as "MBS" — has "got to go," and Tillis on Sunday indicated he would be open to exploring the crown prince's removal as the heir to the throne depending on the outcome of an independent investigation.

"If the facts lead to what we all suspect they will, I think it’ll be very problematic for our relationship going forward," Tillis said.

As critics close in, the crown prince has found an ally in Trump, who has been publicly accepting of Saudi explanations of what happened to Khashoggi.

He at first repeatedly highlighted Mohammed and King Salman's denials of any involvement, and later called the claim that Khashoggi died in a fist-fight a "good first step."

Late Saturday, Trump acknowledged to The Washington Post that the Saudis' "stories are all over the place," but indicated he still has confidence in the crown prince.

“Nobody has told me he’s responsible," Trump said. "Nobody has told me he’s not responsible. We haven’t reached that point ... I would love if he wasn’t responsible."

The president added that he would like to see the crown prince remain in power, calling him a "strong person" who "truly loves his country."

While defending Saudi leadership, Trump has on multiple occasions vowed "severe" consequences for those responsible in Khashoggi's death.

Paul, who has long been a critic of the U.S.-Saudi relationship, said Sunday that such a punishment should go beyond sanctions.

"I think [the crown prince] is going to have to be replaced frankly," Paul said. "I don’t think sanctions go far enough."

Paul additionally rejected the president's argument that lucrative weapons deals between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia should be off-limits because of their economic benefits, saying arms sales should not be viewed simply through an economic lens.

Other Republicans refrained from offering specific potential consequences on Sunday, but said they feel confident the Trump administration will act appropriately once U.S. officials have access to a full complement of intelligence in Khashoggi's killing.

"What we don't want is a ruler that's going to be around for 40 or 50 years going around the world continuing to conduct operations like this," Corker said. "And so, collectively, we have got to deal with this in an appropriate way."

Democrats, meanwhile, offered up a few specific actions they'd like to see take place in the meantime.

Durbin, the second-ranking Democrat in the Senate, suggested the Trump administration expel the Saudi ambassador from the United States "tomorrow morning."

"We ought to formally expel the Saudi ambassador from the United States until there is a completion of a third-party investigation into this kidnap, murder and god-knows-what-followed that occurred in Istanbul," Durbin said on "Meet the Press."

Rep. Adam SchiffAdam Bennett SchiffWhite House, GOP defend Trump emergency declaration Schiff: Evidence of collusion between Trump campaign, Russia 'pretty compelling' Schiff: 'Hard to imagine a poorer case' than Trump's on emergency declaration MORE (D-Calif.), one of Trump's most outspoken critics, seized on the Saudi controversy to call for financial transparency from the president.

"This is the very problem with the president not releasing his tax returns," Schiff said. "It leaves the American people wondering, is U.S.-Saudi policy being driven by something other than national interests."