Senators are also angry with the Trump administration, despite a briefing with CIA Director Gina Haspel.
A CIA briefing on Tuesday left senators raging about Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, with Sen. Bob Corker declaring a jury would find him “guilty” of murdering journalist Jamal Khashoggi and Sen. Lindsey Graham asserting the Trump administration must be “willfully blind” not to hold MBS, as he is known, accountable for the killing.
The unbridled anger toward MBS after a meeting between top Senate leaders and CIA Director Gina Haspel suggests that the chamber will move swiftly to punish the Saudi regime in the coming days. Republican senators in particularly were biting in their assessments of MBS and the Trump administration, which has declined to assert that the Saudi prince ordered Khashoggi’s murder at the Saudi Arabian Consulate in Turkey in October.
Corker (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said there is “zero question that the crown prince directed the murder.”
“Let me just put it this way: If he was in front of a jury he would have a unanimous verdict in 30 minutes,” a somber Corker told reporters after meeting with Haspel. “A guilty verdict.”
The retiring Corker was joined by Graham, a Republican from South Carolina who did not hold back despite his close relationship with President Donald Trump, who has refused to blame MBS for Khashoggi’s death.
Graham said it is “virtually impossible that an operation like this could be carried out without the crown prince’s knowledge,” though Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis both declined to offer senators that conclusion last week.
“Secretary Pompeo and Mattis are following the lead of the president. There’s not a smoking gun, there’s a smoking saw,” Graham said, referring to reports that a bone saw was used to dismember the journalist. “You have to be willfully blind not to come to the conclusion that this was orchestrated and organized by people under the command of MBS and that he was … involved in the demise of Mr. Khashoggi.”
Responding to the torrent of criticism, Fatimah S Baeshen, a spokesperson for the Saudi Arabian embassy, said on Twitter that the government has been “forthright” and is working to make sure “an institutional gap of this catastrophic nature does not happen again.”
“At no time did HRH the Crown Prince correspond with any Saudi officials in any government entity on harming Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi citizen. We categorically reject any accusations purportedly linking the Crown Prince to this horrific incident,” she said.
The briefing on Tuesday was limited to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and key national security lawmakers.
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) complained that the “deep state” shut him out of the briefing and Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said he and others believe the rest of the chamber should be allowed to hear what Haspel told roughly 10 senators on Tuesday.
“I went in believing the crown prince was directly responsible or at least complicit in this. And my feelings were strengthened by the information we were given,” he said.
McConnell and Schumer declined to comment on the briefing. But Schumer said afterward that “CIA Director Haspel should brief the full Senate without delay.”
The Senate voted last week to advance a resolution that would pull U.S. support for Saudi Arabia’s efforts in the Yemeni civil war. There will be more procedural votes either late this week or early next that could force an open-ended debate not only on foreign policy but unrelated matters as well.
The resolution could allow unlimited amendments and become a major headache for Senate leaders unless all 100 senators can agree to limit the process. That would be difficult given the pent-up demand among senators in both parties to vote on items like protecting special counsel Robert Mueller, reforming the criminal justice system and building a wall on the border with Mexico.
Corker said he’d rather the administration respond to Saudi Arabia than force a “blunt” legislative response from Congress. But he seemed to hold out little hope that Trump would turn on MBS after the president repeatedly touted the billions of dollars in arms that the United States plans to sell to Saudi Arabia.
“I’d much rather the administration speak to this. I know the regime in Saudi Arabia values that much more than Congress,” Corker said. Saudi Arabia is now realizing “that they’ve lost Congress for probably multiple years.”
The Khashoggi killing also came up later Tuesday during the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s confirmation hearing for Chris Henzel, the Trump administration’s nominee to serve as ambassador to Yemen. Corker again reiterated his belief that the Saudi crown prince was behind the murder, and he said the administration needs to be more vocal in demanding accountability.
Henzel, a career Foreign Service officer whose most recent role was as a top official in the U.S. Embassy in Riyadh, noted that many Saudis have rallied around the crown prince, and that “there’s a sense that the leadership was being unfairly attacked from the outside.” He added that “however that progresses, the administration believes that there needs to be accountability for what happened to Mr. Khashoggi,” Henzel said.
Graham said that he will push for a sense of the Senate resolution that would designate the crown prince as one of the people responsible for Khashoggi’s death. But senators haven’t decided yet how to proceed on the more powerful resolution, which is being guided by Corker given his committee leadership role.
Corker said he’d rather focus on punishing MBS for his role in Khashoggi’s killing, but that would fall flat with senators like Paul who believe cutting off arms sales to Saudi Arabia is the only way to send a clear message to the country.
“I worry this could be a Pyrrhic victory. The only real teeth is suspending arms,” Paul said.
All Senate Democrats and 14 Republicans supported advancing the Yemen measure last week. Senate Foreign Relations ranking member Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) said he expected Democratic support to hold, though some Democrats said privately the party may work with GOP leaders to limit debate as a government funding battle looms.
“The United States must have a strong response to both the war in Yemen as well as the killing of United States permanent resident and journalist Jamal Khashoggi,” Menendez said. “A real set of consequences … a series of sanctions beyond those that exist would be a very strong answer to what is happening.”
Most Republicans aren’t there yet. And House GOP leaders have shown little interest in any legislative action on the Saudi Arabia, although a number of Republican lawmakers have sharply criticized MBS over Khashoggi’s death. Last month, Democrats tried to force a House floor vote on a resolution to block U.S. involvement in the Yemen campaign. GOP leaders stopped a direct vote on the matter.
But it seems increasingly likely that the Senate will send Saudi Arabia a message before adjourning for the year.
“This is reprehensible conduct, you know? … This is conduct that none of us in America would approve of,” said Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) after the briefing. “Somebody should be punished. Now, the question is: How do you separate the Saudi crown prince and his group from the nation itself. That might be the real policy question.”