Senators return to Washington intent on action against Saudis

Senators return to Washington intent on action against Saudis
© Greg Nash

Senators are preparing to put U.S.-Saudi relations back under the microscope after returning to Washington still seething about the murder of U.S.-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Lawmakers remain skeptical that Saudi Arabia’s day-to-day leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, was not involved in the killing — despite national security adviser John Bolton’s suggestion Tuesday that he hasn’t been implicated — and are plotting their next steps.

Outgoing 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.) said that while he is not expecting a sanctions bill to be taken up any time soon, he is pushing for administration officials to testify as soon as possible.

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Meanwhile, a bipartisan trio of senators, feeling the political winds turn their way, is planning to reintroduce a resolution that would end U.S. military support for the Saudi-led coalition involved in Yemen’s civil war.

“I think it’s going to win,” Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersGun control: Campaigning vs. legislating Booker defends middle-ground health care approach: 'We're going to fight to get there' Sunday shows preview: Democratic candidates make the rounds after debate MORE (I-Vt.) said Wednesday, referring to the resolution. “I think there is increased frustration with the dictatorship in Saudi Arabia and the murder of a dissident journalist and the horror and humanitarian crisis of the war in Yemen. I think added together, we’re going to win this.”

Sanders and Sens. Chris MurphyChristopher (Chris) Scott MurphyBolton exit provokes questions about Trump shift on Iran Trump, lawmakers consider app that would conduct background checks: report Congress set to ignore Trump's wall request in stopgap measure MORE (D-Conn.) and Mike LeeMichael (Mike) Shumway LeeExclusive: Kushner tells GOP it needs to unify behind immigration plan Manufacturing group leads coalition to urge Congress to reauthorize Ex-Im Bank Overnight Defense: GOP grumbles after Trump delays military projects for wall | House panel hints at subpoena for Afghanistan envoy | Kabul bombing raises doubts about Taliban talks MORE (R-Utah) forced a vote on the issue in March, when their resolution was narrowly blocked. Sanders said they are aiming for another floor showdown after Thanksgiving.

Khashoggi, a Virginia resident and Washington Post columnist who frequently criticized the Saudi government, was killed after entering the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2 to obtain paperwork for his marriage to his Turkish fiancée.

Turkish officials have said Khashoggi was strangled almost immediately upon entering the consulate and that a 15-person team, including a doctor with a bone saw, traveled to Istanbul with the goal of killing the journalist.

Saudi officials have revised their explanation of what happened several times but have denied that Crown Prince Mohammed was involved.

Turkey has shared audio of Khashoggi’s dying moments with the United States and other countries, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Saturday.

The New York Times this week reported that the audio includes kill-team member Maher Abdulaziz Mutreb, the crown prince’s former bodyguard, telling someone on the phone to “tell your boss” and that he said words to the effect of “the deed was done.”

Citing three unnamed people familiar with the recording, the Times reported that U.S. intelligence officials believe the “boss” in question is Crown Prince Mohammed.

President TrumpDonald John TrumpHarris bashes Kavanaugh's 'sham' nomination process, calls for his impeachment after sexual misconduct allegation Celebrating 'Hispanic Heritage Month' in the Age of Trump Let's not play Charlie Brown to Iran's Lucy MORE’s national security adviser has pushed back on that deduction.

“That’s not the conclusion that I think the people who heard it have come to,” Bolton told reporters on Tuesday, while acknowledging he has not heard the recording.

Senators are dubious of Bolton’s assessment.

“It’s pretty hard for me to believe that 15 people just on their own fly to Turkey and chop somebody up in a consulate and never tell anybody in Saudi Arabia about it,” Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamBolton exit provokes questions about Trump shift on Iran The 13 Republicans needed to pass gun-control legislation Graham: US should consider strike on Iranian oil refineries after attack on Saudi Arabia MORE (R-S.C.) said when asked about Bolton’s comment. “I’d be shocked if that turns out to be true.”

Graham said he is “absolutely” eyeing sanctions against the Saudis and that he thinks Crown Prince Mohammed should be removed from power. But he said Saudi Arabia should decide the fate of the crown prince, who’s often referred to by his nickname, MBS.

“I think MBS has been unstable and unreliable, and I don’t see that situation getting fixed as long as he’s around,” Graham said.

Trump, who has fostered a close relationship with the Saudis since taking office, has waffled on how to respond to the killing, alternately promising “severe punishment” and expressing hesitation at altering U.S.-Saudi relations.

Corker, meanwhile, said he has not seen a “smoking gun” linking Crown Prince Mohammed to the killing, but noted that the intelligence “points to” him.

“I don’t think there’s any question that he directed it, knew it,” Corker said.

Corker, who is retiring in early January, said he is urging the Trump administration to send high-level officials like Defense Secretary James MattisJames Norman MattisTrump needs a national security adviser who 'speaks softly' US could deploy 150 troops to Syria: report Trump blasts 'Mr. Tough Guy' Bolton: 'He made some very big mistakes' MORE or Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoSchiff: Diplomacy with Iran 'only way out of this situation' Bolton exit provokes questions about Trump shift on Iran Buttigieg: Not too late for US to be 'constructive force' in Middle East MORE to Capitol Hill to brief senators, warning that a war powers resolution or a vote to block arms sales to Saudi Arabia stand a greater chance of passing if there’s no briefing.

“Senators are going to want to express themselves in a negative way about Saudi Arabia,” Corker said. “Since there’s some privileged things that could happen, people are likely to express themselves negatively on other things relative to Saudi Arabia that have nothing to do with the journalist. And so the administration will be much better off coming up here and making a full-throated presentation.”

Corker also indicated he won’t stand in the way of any Senate efforts to block U.S. military support for Saudi Arabia in Yemen.

In addition to forcing a vote on U.S. military involvement in Yemen, senators could force a vote on arms sales to Saudi Arabia if the administration notifies Congress of an upcoming sale.

Murphy said he expects the administration will want to notify Congress of a long-pending precision-guided munitions sale before Democrats take control of the House in January, despite likely not having the votes to approve a sale right now.

The administration recently curbed some of its support to the Saudis in Yemen, announcing Friday that the U.S. military would no longer provide aerial refueling to Saudi coalition planes. The Pentagon and Riyadh framed it as a Saudi decision, but it came after mounting congressional pressure.

“The administration seems to be halfway admitting that their policy is a disaster,” Murphy said. “They’re not refueling, but they’re still sending targeting assistance and selling bombs. We’ve either got to be all in or all out. If we’ve learned anything about the Middle East, it’s that.”

Murphy also expressed confidence in the level of support for the war powers resolution backed by Sanders and Lee.

“I think there’ll be a lot of changed minds,” Murphy said. “People’s perspectives on the Saudis are clearly different today than they were a couple months ago.”