After a closed-door CIA briefing about the slaying of U.S. resident and journalist Jamal Khashoggi, key Senate Republicans sharply contradicted President Trump on Tuesday and said there was no question that Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman orchestrated the killing.
Senators said the briefing by CIA Director Gina Haspel contrasted sharply with one last week by Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo and Defense Secretary James N. Mattis, who echoed Trump’s position that it was unclear whether the crown prince was personally involved with or aware of the slaying.
“If [the crown prince] went in front of a jury, he would be convicted in 30 minutes,” Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) told reporters after emerging from the meeting.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who had demanded to hear directly from Haspel after she was noticeably absent from last week’s briefing, said the U.S. should end arms sales to Saudi Arabia and come down on the country like a “ton of bricks.”
The senators’ angry reaction gave momentum to congressional efforts to punish Saudi Arabia for the killing, despite Trump’s plea to refrain from such actions because they might endanger Saudi investment plans in the U.S.
It marked the strongest pushback on the White House from Trump’s own party since lawmakers approved sanctions against Russia this year, over the administration’s objections, in response to the 2016 election meddling.
“You have to be willfully blind not to come to the conclusion this was orchestrated and organized by people under the command of MBS,” Graham said, using the prince’s initials.
“There is not a smoking gun. There is a smoking saw,” he said, a gruesome reference to the journalist’s alleged dismemberment shortly after entering the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, on Oct. 2.
Khashoggi, an opinion writer for the Washington Post, was an outspoken critic of the Saudi government.
Graham added that Pompeo and Mattis, who said last week there was no conclusive evidence that the prince orchestrated the killing, were “following the lead of the president” and that he assumed they were being “good soldiers.”
Haspel’s absence from last week’s briefing immediately raised speculation that she had been excluded because the White House was concerned about what she would say. Graham responded by threatening to withhold his vote on any legislation until she briefed lawmakers.
After hearing Haspel’s version, Graham now wants to release a “sense of the Senate” statement before the end of the year that the prince was complicit in a brutal murder that put the “region into chaos.” He also called for an end to arms sales to Saudi Arabia “as long as he’s going to be involved in this country.”
Other Republicans left the meeting with the same conclusion on the prince’s involvement, but hedged on how to respond.
“Somebody should be punished,” said Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.). “The question now is how do you separate the Saudi crown prince from the nation itself. That might be the real problem.”
Saudi Arabia has been a key U.S. ally in the Middle East, but Graham warned that is not enough to overlook its de facto leader’s role in the killing of Khashoggi.
“The relationship is worth saving, but not at all costs,” he said. “We’ll do more damage to our standing in the world and our national security by ignoring MBS than dealing with him.”
Congressional skepticism over Trump’s handling of the killing was already high. In a rare rebuke last week, the Senate advanced a resolution calling for an end to U.S. military support for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen.
The resolution calls for a halt to U.S. military aid for the Saudi-led coalition that is battling Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen. The civil war has killed tens of thousands of civilians and become what aid workers call the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.
Fourteen Republicans joined Democrats in supporting the resolution, which passed a procedural vote 63 to 37. But even with the anger from Republican senators, prospects for that joint resolution remain unclear. Graham, who voted in favor of it last week to send a warning shot to the White House, said Tuesday he would not support it going forward.
The House has not yet passed anything and Trump threatened to veto the resolution that advanced last week, if it reached his desk.
Democrats agreed that the briefing left little doubt in their minds on the killing, but did not detail what the administration should do.
“I am now more convinced than I was before — and I was pretty convinced — that in fact the United States must have a strong response to both the war in Yemen as well as the killing of a United States permanent resident and journalist,” said Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee. “Only a strong response by the United States will send a clear and unequivocal message that such actions are not acceptable on the world’s stage.”
The milder “sense of the Senate” action favored by Graham is viewed by some Republicans as a better way to make a statement against Saudi Arabia without reopening a potentially complex discussion about war powers, as Democrats would prefer.
The Senate's response to Saudi Arabia could threaten to further tie up Congress' to-do list before the end of the year. Lawmakers are already divided over whether to fund Trump's border wall in a must-pass spending bill by Dec. 21.
The briefing with Haspel was limited to a handful of lawmakers, including the leaders of key committees dealing with national security, intelligence and foreign affairs.
Sens. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), the top Senate Democrat and his deputy, who both attended the briefing, said all senators needed to hear the CIA’s analysis.
“It certainly reinforced my support for the bipartisan joint war powers resolution to end unauthorized U.S. military involvement in Yemen and the need for a stronger response by the U.S. and the Trump administration to the murder of Jamal Khashoggi,” Durbin said. “Every senator should hear what I heard this afternoon. CIA Director Haspel must brief the full Senate immediately.”