WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump may have poked a congressional bear with his repeated refusal to condemn Saudi Arabia for its role in the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.
Lawmakers have until now done little to push back against Trump’s approach to foreign policy – standing aside as he launched a trade war, picked fights with long-time U.S. allies and embraced dictators from North Korea to Russia.
But the Khashoggi killing has riled Republicans and Democrats alike, sparking a nascent legislative rebellion that promises to escalate when Democrats take control of the House in January. A clash over Trump’s handling of the journalist’s murder – and his broader embrace of Saudi Arabia – could unfold as early as next week, when Congress is set to reconvene.
Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has requested a classified briefing from top Trump administration officials – including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis – on Khashoggi’s murder as well as the U.S. support for a Saudi-led bombing campaign in Yemen.
In that closed-door session, tentatively set for next week, lawmakers are expected to grill Pompeo and Mattis about the CIA’s reported conclusion that Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, Mohammad bin Salman, ordered Khashoggi’s Oct. 2 murder inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. The journalist had gone into the diplomatic facility to get documents he needed for his upcoming marriage to a Turkish woman.
Trump has publicly questioned the CIA’s assessment, emphasizing Salman’s denials even as the Saudi government’s account of Khashoggi’s fate has shifted. On Thursday, Trump said the crown prince “regretted the death more than I do” and reiterated his position that there was no conclusive evidence tying the crown prince to Khashoggi’s murder.
“The CIA doesn’t say they did it. They do point out certain things, and in pointing out those things, you can conclude that maybe he did or maybe he didn’t,” the president told reporters in Florida, where he is spending Thanksgiving weekend with his family.
Earlier this week, Corker and Sen. Bob Menendez, the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, responded to Trump’s equivocation by forcing the administration to determine whether the crown prince was responsible for Khashoggi’s murder. The senators used a provision in the Magnitsky Act to trigger that assessment.
In the House, Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., who is poised to chair the Intelligence Committee come January, has also vowed to scrutinize Trump’s statements downplaying the CIA’s assessment, as well as the broader U.S. alliance with Saudi Arabia.
“Certainly we will be delving further into the murder of Khashoggi, and I want to make sure that the committee is fully debriefed on it,” Schiff told The Washington Post. “We will certainly want to examine what the intelligence community knows about the murder.”
Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., who is likely to snag the gavel of the House Foreign Affairs Committee when Democrats take control, has also promised to re-examine the U.S-Saudi alliance in the wake of Khashoggi’s death.
“It’s unacceptable to murder a journalist,” Engel said in a statement earlier this week. “When the United States is leading on the global stage, we can apply the sort of pressure that advances our values. Instead, the president is acting as though the United States is dependent on Saudi Arabia and not the other way around.”
One element of the U.S-Saudi relationship that is ripe for legislative push back is the war in Yemen, a deadly conflict that has sparked the world’s worst humanitarian disaster. The war is a proxy battle between Saudi Arabia and its archenemy in the region, Iran. The U.S. has supported a Saudi-led coalition that is trying to defeat the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels who overthrew Yemen’s previous government.
With millions of Yemeni civilians on the brink of starvation, the war has become increasingly controversial – and the U.S. role has grown increasingly unpopular on Capitol Hill. Khashoggi’s murder has galvanized opponents to press for an end to the conflict.
Sens. Bernie Sanders, a Vermont liberal, and Mike Lee, a Utah conservative, are hoping to force a vote on a war powers resolution that would force the Trump administration to end its military role in the conflict. That measure could come up for a vote as early as next week.
Khashoggi’s murder “underscores how urgent it has become for the United States to redefine our relationship with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia,” Sanders said in a statement promising to push for a vote on his proposal.
It’s not clear if that measure has enough support to pass the Senate. House Republican leaders blocked a similar measure in that chamber earlier this month, but proponents hope to revive it.
“Should they be able to pass it in the Senate, that would put pressure on the House once again,” said Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Wis., a chief backer of the war powers measure. “Otherwise if that doesn’t happen, we will in the next Congress be in a better position to move it forward.”