The Trump administration was set to ignore a Friday deadline for giving the Senate a full accounting of the role of Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, in the brutal slaying of U.S.-based Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi four months ago.
The administration, which has consistently sought to shield Saudi rulers from blame, had until midnight Friday to answer senators’ questions about whether Prince Mohammed ordered the killing, as U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded, and what additional sanctions should be placed on the government in Riyadh.
The deadline was set by Democratic and Republican senators, who wrote the president on Oct. 10 — just over a week after Khashoggi’s disappearance — calling for an investigation and invoking the Global Magnitsky Act that imposes sanctions on egregious abusers of international human rights. Under the rules, the president had 120 days to respond.
Senators said Trump was obliged by law to answer. Administration officials contended, however, that the law was not binding and that the president was within his rights to ignore the senators’ demands.
A bipartisan group of senators, anticipating administration inaction, reintroduced a bill Thursday from late last year that would restrict arms sales to Saudi Arabia in response to the Khashoggi killing and the disastrous Saudi-led war in Yemen.
Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said the legislation was aimed at “preventing President Trump from sweeping Mr. Khashoggi’s murder under the rug.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a Republican close to the president, said sanctions were long overdue for “this barbaric act.”
“While Saudi Arabia is a strategic ally, the behavior of the crown prince — in multiple ways — has shown disrespect for the relationship and made him, in my view, beyond toxic,” Graham said.
Khashoggi, a resident of Virginia who wrote columns for the Washington Post that were often critical of the Saudi monarchy, was strangled and dismembered inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, on Oct. 2. After weeks of denials, the Saudi government finally acknowledged his death but blamed the killing on “rogue” Saudi agents.
U.S. intelligence agencies concluded that such a brazen act would have had to be ordered by Crown Prince Mohammed. But Trump and Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo, keen to preserve a robust diplomatic and economic relationship with Riyadh that includes arm sales and mutual antagonism toward Iran, have refused to accept those findings.
Combined with the Saudi role in Yemen, where it leads a coalition that has killed thousands of civilians, the Khashoggi case has generated rare bipartisan criticism of Trump for his fealty to the kingdom. The only other issue to have similarly galvanized Republicans and Democrats in opposition is Trump’s friendliness with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The Khashoggi case “seems to be opening chapter 2 of Congress being more purposeful and determined in a bipartisan way [to challenge the administration] on foreign policy,” said Thomas Melia, a former senior State Department human rights official and the Washington director of PEN America, which advocates for human rights and freedom of expression.
PEN was one of several organizations demanding government action against Saudi Arabia ahead of what they assumed would be the administration’s refusal to meet Friday’s deadline.
Adel Jubeir, Saudi minister of state for foreign affairs, was in Washington this week for an international conference and met with Pompeo on Thursday. The two agreed on the importance of a “credible and transparent” investigation of the Khashoggi killing that holds “all of those involved accountable,” the State Department said in a statement, which echoed others of past months.
The Saudis are prosecuting about 15 alleged participants in the slaying, but none are thought to be its intellectual authors. The Trump administration has yanked U.S. visas or frozen assets of about three dozen Saudi officials.