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 GrahamGOP group calls on Republican senators to stand up to McConnell on election security in new ads Cindy McCain says no one in Republican Party carries 'voice of reason' after husband's death Trump says he'll decide on foreign aid cuts within a week 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 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 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 Trump Former US ambassador: 'Denmark is not a big fan of Donald Trump and his politics' Senate Democrats push for arms control language in defense policy bill Detroit county sheriff endorses Booker for president 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 MurphyHobbled NRA shows strength with Trump Overnight Defense: US, Russia tensions grow over nuclear arms | Highlights from Esper's Asia trip | Trump strikes neutral tone on Hong Kong protests | General orders ethics review of special forces White House eyes September action plan for gun proposals MORE (D-Conn.), Bernie SandersBernie SandersSenate Democrats push for arms control language in defense policy bill Top adviser on Sanders: 'He's always been underestimated' 'The Simpsons' pokes fun at Trump's feud with 'the squad' MORE (I-Vt.) and Mike LeeMichael (Mike) Shumway LeeMcConnell, allies lean into Twitter, media 'war' Conservatives buck Trump over worries of 'socialist' drug pricing Criminal justice reform should extend to student financial aid 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 ShelbyIn-space refueling vs heavy lift? NASA and SpaceX choose both Budget deal sparks scramble to prevent shutdown Trump border fight throws curveball into shutdown prospects 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 MattisOnly Donald Trump has a policy for Afghanistan New Pentagon report blames Trump troop withdrawal for ISIS surge in Iraq and Syria Mattis returns to board of General Dynamics MORE and Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoChina threatens to sanction US firms over sales of F-16s to Taiwan Trump moves forward with billion F-16 sale to Taiwan Trump says he'll decide on foreign aid cuts within a week 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 group calls on Republican senators to stand up to McConnell on election security in new ads The Hill's Morning Report - Trump hews to NRA on guns and eyes lower taxes Hobbled NRA shows strength with Trump MORE (R-Ky.), Minority Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerSaagar Enjeti: Biden's latest blunder; Krystal Ball: Did Schumer blow our chance to beat McConnell? Johnson eyes Irish border in Brexit negotiations Lewandowski on potential NH Senate run: If I run, 'I'm going to win' 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) MenendezPelosi warns Mnuchin to stop 'illegal' .3B cut to foreign aid House passes temporary immigration protections for Venezuelans Senate panel advances bipartisan bill to lower drug prices amid GOP blowback 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.”