Trump pick for Saudi ambassador defends US relationship with Riyadh

Trump pick for Saudi ambassador defends US relationship with Riyadh
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President TrumpDonald John TrumpNew EPA rule would expand Trump officials' powers to reject FOIA requests Democratic senator introduces bill to ban gun silencers Democrats: Ex-Commerce aide said Ross asked him to examine adding census citizenship question MORE’s pick to be ambassador to Saudi Arabia on Wednesday defended the United States continuing to work with the nation as senators fumed at its killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and conduct in the Yemen civil war.

During his confirmation hearing, retired Gen. John Abizaid called for accountability for Khashoggi’s killing and support for human rights in Saudi Arabia. But he also repeatedly stressed the importance of U.S.-Saudi relations.

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“War in Yemen, the senseless killing of Jamal Khashoggi, rifts in the Gulf alliance, alleged abuses of innocent people to include an American citizen and female activists all present immediate challenges,” he told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “Yet in the long run, we need a strong and mature partnership with Saudi Arabia.”

Abizaid also said later that “our relationship with Saudi Arabia is bigger than our relationship with just the crown prince.”

In that statement, Abizaid was responding to a question from Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioOvernight Health Care — Sponsored by Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids — Trump issues order to bring transparency to health care prices | Fight over billions in ObamaCare payments heads to Supreme Court Ex-Obama counterterrorism official: Huawei could pose security threat to international intelligence community The Memo: All eyes on faltering Biden ahead of first debate MORE (R-Fla.), who said Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has “gone full gangster.”

“He’s reckless, he’s ruthless, he has a penchant for escalation, for taking high risks. [He's] confrontational in his foreign policy approach, and I think increasingly willing to test the limits of what he can get away with with the United States,” Rubio said.

U.S. lawmakers have grown increasingly fed up with Saudi Arabia, and Prince Mohammed in particular, after Khashoggi was killed in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul last year.

Last year, the Senate passed a resolution naming Prince Mohammed “responsible” for Khashoggi’s death. The U.S. intelligence community has reportedly concluded he ordered the slaying.

The Senate is also expected in the coming weeks to pass, for a second time, a resolution that would end U.S. military aid to the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen’s civil war.

President Trump, though, has resisted imposing steep penalties on Saudi Arabia for Khashoggi’s death, arguing the U.S.-Saudi relationship is too important to imperil.

The United States has been without an ambassador to Saudi Arabia since Trump took office. Abizaid is respected as the former commander of U.S. Central Command and is expected to be confirmed.

But senators used his confirmation hearing to vent their frustrations at Saudi behavior.

“We’re facing a crown prince who’s gone ‘full gangster,' ” Sen. Ron JohnsonRonald (Ron) Harold JohnsonGOP senators divided over approach to election security Democrats make U-turn on calling border a 'manufactured crisis' GOP frets about Trump's poll numbers MORE (R-Wis.) said, agreeing with Rubio’s description. “We find the behavior completely unacceptable.”

Still, Johnson said the United States needs a “sound” relationship with Saudi Arabia to counter Iran.

Abizaid responded that it’s a “vital” U.S. interest to have a relationship with Saudi Arabia to push back on “malign Iranian influence.”

Committee Chairman Jim RischJames (Jim) Elroy RischOvernight Defense: Officials brief Congress after Iran shoots down drone | Lawmakers fear 'grave situation' | Trump warns Iran | Senate votes to block Saudi arms sales | Bombshell confession at Navy SEAL's murder trial Senate votes to block Trump's Saudi arms sale Trump's UN pick faces Senate grilling MORE (R-Idaho) added that the United States needs to send a “strong” message to the Saudis about their behavior.

“And I’m sure Gen. Abizaid will carry it,” Risch continued. “They’re making it very difficult for us right now, and the crown prince particularly is making this very, very difficult for us.”

Democrats have also previously expressed concern at the ties Trump adviser and son-in-law Jared KushnerJared Corey KushnerTrump puts the cart before the horse in Palestine Negotiators face major obstacles to meeting July border deadline GOP launches 'WinRed' online fundraising site in response to Democrats' small-donor advantage MORE has with the Saudis. Without specifically naming Kushner, committee ranking member Sen. Bob MenendezRobert (Bob) MenendezSenate to vote on blocking Trump's Saudi arms deal as soon as this week There is a severe physician shortage and it will only worsen Democrats ask Fed to probe Trump's Deutsche Bank ties MORE (D-N.J.) asked Abizaid if he “will insist on remaining fully informed and briefed” of any administration contact with the Saudis.

“I will insist upon that,” Abizaid responded. “I am also an old soldier, and I know my chain of command. My chain of command is the president and through … the secretary of State.”