A bipartisan group of senators has written to President Donald Trump, asking him to investigate whether Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.
The letter from Republican Sen. Bob Corker and Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez, the chair and ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, sets up a showdown between the White House and Capitol Hill.
It comes in the wake of Trump’s statement Tuesday insisting there is no certainty bin Salman ordered the killing of the dissident journalist.
President Donald Trump’s equivocation on a Saudi prince’s responsibility for the murder of a journalist has brought a chorus of anger from senators on both sides of the political aisle
Democrat Bob Menendez of New Jersey (left) and Republican Bob Corker of Tennessee (right) wrote to the White House demanding a formal declaration from the White House that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was behind the death of Jamal Khashoggi, and said a federal law entitles them to an answer
Mohammed bin Salman, known as MBS, is thought to have ordered Khashoggi’s killing at a Saudi embassy in istanbul last month
In their letter to the White House Tuesday evening, Corker and Menendez claim the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act allows them to force the president to make a formal determination if they ask for one.
‘On October 10, we sent a letter requesting that you make a determination on the imposition of sanctions pursuant to the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act with ‘respect to any foreign person responsible’ for Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi’s murder,’ they wrote.
‘In light of recent developments, including the Saudi government’s acknowledgement that Saudi officials killed Mr. Khashoggi in its Istanbul consulate, we request that your determination specifically address whether Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman is responsible for Mr. Khashoggi’s murder.
‘We expect to receive your determination within 120 days of our original request.’
Khashoggi was slaughtered at the Istanbul consulate; he was an occasional Washington Post columnist and a frequent critic of the Saudi regime
Corker, never a Trump fan, tweeted his disgust on Tuesday: ‘I never thought I’d see the day a White House would moonlight as a public relations firm for the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia.’
Other Republicans have slammed the president for his statement, including Sen. Lindsey Graham, a staunch Trump ally from South Carolina.
‘It is not in our national security interests to look the other way when it comes to the brutal murder of Mr. Jamal #Khashoggi,’ Graham tweeted.
Graham also warned he expects bipartisan support on Capitol Hill for sanctions on Saudi Arabia.
‘I firmly believe there will be strong bipartisan support for serious sanctions against Saudi Arabia, including appropriate members of the royal family, for this barbaric act which defied all civilized norms,’ he said.
Repubican Sens. Rand Paul and Lindsey Graham also blasted the president’s statement
A chorus of other GOP senators berate the president on Twitter.
‘Our foreign policy must be about promoting our national interests. It is in our natl interest to defend human rights. HR violations lead to mass migration, help extremism flourish & often result in new governments hostile towards the U.S. because we supported their oppressors,’ wrote Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida.
Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul slammed Trump’s statement and blamed the president’s national security advisor for writing it.
‘I’m pretty sure this statement is Saudi Arabia First, not America First. I’m also pretty sure John Bolton wrote it,’ Paul wrote on Twitter.
‘We should, at the very least, NOT reward Saudi Arabia with our sophisticated armaments that they in turn use to bomb civilians.’
FIRE FROM SENS. GRAHAM AND PAUL
Paul and Graham are longtime critics of Saudi Arabia, and have criticized MBS – the crown prince is known by his initials – in the past. They have also pushed for U.S. sanctions and a reduction in arms sales.
Graham said a week after Khashoggi was murdered that the crown prince had to go.
‘I’ve been their biggest defender on floor of the United States. This guy is a wrecking ball. He had this guy murdered in consulate in Turkey,’ he told Fox News in October. ‘This guy has got to go.’
Paul has also called for MBS’s removal.
‘I feel certain the crown prince was involved and he directed this and that’s why I think we cannot continue to have relations with him. I think is going to have to be replaced, frankly. But I think that sanctions don’t go far enough. I think we need to look at the arm sale,’ he told Fox News in late October.
‘SAUDI ARABIA FIRST’
Sen. Rand Paul referenced the Saudis’ war in Yemen
Sen. Marco Rubio also weighed in
Paul has been one of the most critical voices on Saudi Arabia in the Senate.
Bin Salman was appointed crown prince in 2017 by a royal decree from King Salman, an aging ruler who is thought to be a figurehead.
Trump was also slammed by Turkey, a longtime U.S. ally in the region.
Turkish intelligence officials were the ones who revealed Khashoggi was killed in the Saudi Arabian consulate in Instanbul on October 2 after he went there to complete paperwork to marry his Turkish finance.
The ruling party there said Trump’s statement was ‘comic.’
‘It is not possible for an intelligence agency such as the CIA, which even knows the color of the fur on the cat walking around the Saudi consulate’s garden … to not know who gave this order,’ said Numan Kurtulmus, deputy chairman of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s political party, according to Reuters. ‘This is not credible either for US public opinion or the world public opinion.’
‘Yesterday’s statement is a comic statement,’ he added.
President Trump on Tuesday said that he was still open to sanctions that could be imposed by Congress in the lame duck session but would only support them if they were in the United States’ national security interests.
He insisted, ‘The crime against Jamal Khashoggi was a terrible one, and one that our country does not condone.’
Yet, the U.S. president said he would take no further action because the United States’ relationship with Saudi Arabia is too valuable.
‘That being said, we may never know all of the facts surrounding the murder of Mr. Jamal Khashoggi. In any case, our relationship is with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia,’ he again asserted.
His statement, sent early Tuesday afternoon, claimed, ‘They have been a great ally in our very important fight against Iran. The United States intends to remain a steadfast partner of Saudi Arabia to ensure the interests of our country, Israel and all other partners in the region.’
It went against a reported CIA assessment that it was high probable bin Salman ordered the journalist’s murder.
And it also serves to prop up MBS, who is a close ally of Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law, at a time when the top of the wider Saudi royal family is no longer united in backing him.
One of his uncles is being suggested as the next king by other family members, leaving MBS more politically exposed than he had been before the furor over the murder.
Trump’s stunning statement came hours before the president was due to depart the White House for a family holiday at Mar-a-Lago.
And it was just days after the president admitted he had not listened to an audio tape provided by the Turkish government of Khashoggi’s murder, because it was too gruesome.
‘VIOLEN, VERY VICIOUS’
‘It was very violent, very vicious and terrible,’ Trump told told Fox News on Friday.
Turmp said then that he didn’t know if MBS was lying to him when he told him that he had no knowledge of the murder.
In the interview for Fox News Sunday the president replied: ‘Well, will anybody really know? All right, will anybody really know? But he did have certainly people that were reasonably close to him and close to him that were probably involved.’
Vice President Mike Pence had told reporters while he was in Australia that the U.S would hold ‘all of those who are responsible’ for the murder accountable.
‘The murder of Jamal Khashoggi was an atrocity. It was also an affront to a free and independent press and the United States is determined to hold all of those accountable who are responsible for that murder,’ Pence told reporters traveling with him on Saturday.
Trump then released a puzzling statement defending the Saudis and the crown prince.
‘King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman vigorously deny any knowledge of the planning or execution of the murder of Mr. Khashoggi,’ he again pointed out.
It was more love than MBS was getting from inside the royal family.
BATTLE FOR SUCCESSION
Sources close to the royal court told Reuters that princes and cousins from inside the Al Saud family are asking for a change in the line of succession. They acknowledged that the 82-year-old king is unlikely to ditch his son, however.
A Washington Post report over the weekend said the U.S. had high confidence in a CIA assessment that MBS would have been knowledgeable about events happening in the kingdom he effectively rules.
The CIA’s confidence level was lifted, CNN reported, after receiving an audio tape provided to the U.S. by the Turkish government earlier this month.
Khashoggi can be heard ordering his killers to release him in the audio recording of his murder, before one of the killers shouts: ‘Traitor! You will be brought to account,’ according to Turkish media.
In Saudi Arabia, the Khashoggi murder has opened an opportunity to seize power from the Crown Prince.
Members of the House of Saud are seeking to find an alternative successor to the throne and prevent MBS from becoming king, sources close to the royal court said.
A preferred candidate is Prince Ahmed bin Abdulaziz, 76, younger full brother of King Salman and uncle to the crown prince.
King Salman’s only surviving brother flirted with power in London in October as he appeared to distance himself from the king and crown prince over the Khashoggi murder.
Prince Ahmed was one of only three people on the Allegiance Council, made up of the ruling family’s senior members, who opposed MBS becoming crown prince in 2017, two Saudi sources said at the time.
Unlike European monarchies the House of Saud is made up of hundreds of princes, with the power of succession drawn across tribal lines, rather than automatically going to the eldest son.
Each branch of the dynasty is consulted before a new king succeeds.