Trump-GOP rift grows over Saudis

GOP senators exiting a closed-door intelligence briefing on Tuesday insisted they were more certain than ever that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was responsible for the killing of U.S.-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi at a Saudi Consulate in Turkey.

“There’s not a smoking gun, there’s a smoking saw,” said Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamTrump wishes 'Happy Father's Day to all,' including 'worst and most vicious critics' Trump wishes 'Happy Father's Day to all,' including 'worst and most vicious critics' Election security bills face GOP buzzsaw MORE (R-S.C.) in a pointed reference to statements by the president and other administration officials that there was no “smoking gun” linking the de facto Saudi ruler to Khashoggi’s slaying.

ADVERTISEMENT

“You have to be willfully blind not to come to the conclusion that this was orchestrated and organized by people under the command of MBS and that he was intricately involved in the demise of Mr. Khashoggi,” Graham added, using the crown prince’s initials.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob CorkerRobert (Bob) Phillips CorkerPress: How 'Nervous Nancy' trumped Trump Press: How 'Nervous Nancy' trumped Trump Amash gets standing ovation at first town hall after calling for Trump's impeachment MORE (R-Tenn.) said there was “zero question” the crown prince had Khashoggi killed.

“I have zero question in my mind that the crown prince directed the murder and was kept apprised of the situation all the way through. I have zero question in my mind,” said Corker, who is retiring in January.

The question now is what happens next.

President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump cites tax cuts over judges as having biggest impact of his presidency Trump cites tax cuts over judges as having biggest impact of his presidency Ocasio-Cortez claps back at Trump after he cites her in tweet rejecting impeachment MORE has repeatedly signaled that the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia is too important to put at risk over Khashoggi’s death. In an unusual statement just weeks ago, he said “we may never know all the facts” surrounding the journalist’s killing, adding of the crown prince: “maybe he did and maybe he didn’t,” know details of the crime.

Fatimah Baeshen, a spokeswoman for the Saudi Embassy, defended the crown prince during a string of tweets on Tuesday, saying they “categorically reject any accusations purportedly linking the Crown Prince to this horrific incident.”

Last week, the Senate voted to advance a measure that would require the president to remove any troops in or “affecting” the Saudi war in Yemen within 30 days unless they are fighting al Qaeda.

Senators are hoping to reach a consensus on what, if any, changes they should make to the underlying resolution, spearheaded by Sens. Chris MurphyChristopher (Chris) Scott Murphy It's time to let Medicare to negotiate drug prices Senators clinch votes to rebuke Trump on Saudi arms sale Senators clinch votes to rebuke Trump on Saudi arms sale MORE (D-Conn.), Bernie SandersBernie SandersConfused by polls? Watch early primary states — not national numbers Confused by polls? Watch early primary states — not national numbers Biden leads in early voting states, followed by Warren, Sanders: poll MORE (I-Vt.) and Mike LeeMichael (Mike) Shumway LeeOvernight Defense: Latest on House defense bill markup | Air Force One, low-yield nukes spark debate | House Dems introduce resolutions blocking Saudi arms sales | Trump to send 1,000 troops to Poland Overnight Defense: Latest on House defense bill markup | Air Force One, low-yield nukes spark debate | House Dems introduce resolutions blocking Saudi arms sales | Trump to send 1,000 troops to Poland Senators clinch votes to rebuke Trump on Saudi arms sale MORE (R-Utah).

Graham said he plans to introduce a separate resolution that would get the Senate on record blaming the crown prince for Khashoggi’s killing. While nonbinding, passage of such a resolution would be a major rebuke to a U.S. ally. 

CIA Director Gina Haspel’s briefing appeared to boost momentum for action.

In an apparent shift, Sen. Richard ShelbyRichard Craig ShelbyGOP nervous that border wall fight could prompt year-end shutdown GOP nervous that border wall fight could prompt year-end shutdown On The Money: Pelosi says no debt ceiling hike until deal on spending caps | McConnell pressures White House to strike budget deal | Warren bill would wipe out billions in student debt | Senate passes IRS reform bill MORE (R-Ala.), who voted against advancing the Yemen resolution last week, wouldn’t rule out supporting it after speaking with Haspel.

“All evidence points to that all this leads back to the crown prince,” Shelby said, adding that Khashoggi’s killing was “reprehensible conduct.”

Senators, irritated by the administration’s refusal to previously send Haspel to Capitol Hill, were unconvinced by arguments put forward at a Senatewide briefing by Defense Secretary James MattisJames Norman MattisTop nuclear official quietly left Pentagon in April Top nuclear official quietly left Pentagon in April Overnight Defense: Pompeo blames Iran for oil tanker attacks | House panel approves 3B defense bill | Trump shares designs for red, white and blue Air Force One MORE and Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoTrump admin to discuss sending additional military force to Middle East amid Iran tensions: report Buttigieg: Iran situation 'disturbingly reminiscent' of lead-up to Iraq War Buttigieg: Iran situation 'disturbingly reminiscent' of lead-up to Iraq War MORE.

Senators say Haspel, who focused her talk on Khashoggi and not Yemen, didn’t change minds in the room but gave a more somber assessment compared to last week’s Mattis-Pompeo briefing.

Haspel’s briefing included approximately 10 senators — Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellGOP nervous that border wall fight could prompt year-end shutdown GOP nervous that border wall fight could prompt year-end shutdown Jon Stewart slams McConnell over 9/11 victim fund MORE (R-Ky.), Minority Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerElection security bills face GOP buzzsaw Election security bills face GOP buzzsaw US women's soccer team reignites equal pay push MORE (D-N.Y.) and leadership from national security-related committees.

Corker, asked about the difference in tone between Haspel and Mattis and Pompeo, said it was like the “difference between darkness and sunshine.”

More senators want to hear from Haspel.

Murphy said “of course” Haspel should have met with the entire body, adding that the “slighting” of most senators isn’t doing the administration any favors.

“Denying a briefing to 80 percent of the Senate doesn’t help win you friends,” he said.

When reached by The Hill on whether it limited the guest list, the CIA declined to comment.

The chances of the Yemen bill becoming law soon appear slim.

The House, which is receiving its own briefing on Saudi Arabia next week, hasn’t committed to moving the bill by the end of the year, though Democrats have signaled it is a priority after they gain power in January.

In the Senate, 37 Republican senators voted against advancing the resolution.

McConnell said at a Wall Street Journal event this week that senators were “struggling” to find an “appropriate” response.

“No response is certainly not appropriate. Looking the other way is not appropriate, but a complete fracture with Saudi Arabia in my view is not in our best interest long term,” he said.

The Senate could take a vote on starting debate on the Yemen resolution next week. Leadership and supporters of the resolution are in talks to try to get a deal to avoid a freewheeling floor vote, where senators will be able to force a vote on any amendment.

Corker acknowledged after the briefing with Haspel that “temperatures are up” among senators, but there is a disagreement over whether the Senate should try to respond to both Khashoggi’s death and Yemen in one piece of legislation.

“I think temperatures are up by all involved … so figuring out something that can pass overwhelmingly still is going to be difficult because some people want to tie the Yemen piece into the Khashoggi piece,” he said.

Asked if Haspel’s briefing changed any minds, Corker shook his head no as the door to his Senate subway car closed.

Graham also wants legislation he co-sponsored with Sen. Bob MenendezRobert (Bob) MenendezThere is a severe physician shortage and it will only worsen Democrats ask Fed to probe Trump's Deutsche Bank ties Ending the Cyprus arms embargo will increase tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean MORE (D-N.J.) as an amendment to the Yemen resolution. That bill would require sanctions on anyone involved in Khashoggi’s death, a report on Saudi Arabia’s human rights record and a suspension of arms sales to the Saudis, among other provisions.

Corker said a measure dealing specifically with the journalist’s death would likely get broader support than merging bills on Yemen and Khashoggi.

He said the Senate needed to speak on the issue or the administration’s rhetoric would signal to the international community that the crown prince and others would have immunity.

“I think it would appear to them and people in the region just based on what has been said that someone like MBS can murder people and have immunity,” Corker said. “If he was in front of a jury, he would have a unanimous verdict in about 30 minutes — a guilty verdict.”