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 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.) 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.

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“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 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 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 TrumpRosenstein expected to leave DOJ next month: reports Allies wary of Shanahan's assurances with looming presence of Trump States file lawsuit seeking to block Trump's national emergency declaration 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 MurphyCongress closer to forcing Trump’s hand on Saudi support House passes bill to end US support for Saudi war in Yemen This week: Border deal remains elusive as shutdown looms MORE (D-Conn.), Bernie SandersBernard (Bernie) SandersCongress closer to forcing Trump’s hand on Saudi support Booker seeks dialogue about race as he kicks off 2020 campaign Capitalism: The known ideal MORE (I-Vt.) and Mike LeeMichael (Mike) Shumway LeeCongress closer to forcing Trump’s hand on Saudi support Senate approves border bill that prevents shutdown Push for paid family leave heats up ahead of 2020 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 ShelbyHow the border deal came together Winners and losers in the border security deal GOP braces for Trump's emergency declaration 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 MattisAllies wary of Shanahan's assurances with looming presence of Trump Congress closer to forcing Trump’s hand on Saudi support Trump nominates ambassador to Turkey MORE and Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoCongress closer to forcing Trump’s hand on Saudi support Heather Nauert withdraws her name from consideration for UN ambassador job The Hill's Morning Report — Presented by the American Academy of HIV Medicine — Trump, Congress prepare for new border wall fight 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 McConnellDemocrats brush off GOP 'trolling' over Green New Deal Trump should beware the 'clawback' Congress Juan Williams: America needs radical solutions MORE (R-Ky.), Minority Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerGOP Green New Deal stunt is a great deal for Democrats National emergency declaration — a legal fight Trump is likely to win House Judiciary Dems seek answers over Trump's national emergency declaration 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) MenendezWilliam Barr is right man for the times This week: Trump delivers State of the Union amid wall fight BuzzFeed story has more to say about media than the president 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.”