Dec 6, 2018, 4:46 AM ET

Senate moving ahead with plans to punish Saudi Arabia over Khashoggi killing as US re-evaluates relationship

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Key Republican senators will meet Thursday morning to discuss how to proceed as many lawmakers seek to punish Saudi Arabia for the brutal murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.

Several Republicans have joined Democrats in pushing for a resolution that would withdraw all U.S. military support for the Saudi-led coalition fighting rebels in neighboring Yemen, and they are now pursuing other options like the restriction of U.S. arms sales to the kingdom and a "Sense of the Senate" resolution that censures Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for his reported role in the murder plot.

PHOTO: A general manager of Alarab TV, Jamal Khashoggi, looks on during a press conference in the Bahraini capital Manama, Dec. 15, 2014.Niganned al-Shaikh/AFP/Getty Images
A general manager of Alarab TV, Jamal Khashoggi, looks on during a press conference in the Bahraini capital Manama, Dec. 15, 2014.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a close ally of President Donald Trump, said he planned to introduce that resolution on Wednesday. Graham has been an outspoken critic on this issue.

It's not clear when that resolution could come up for a vote. While the Yemen resolution cleared a key hurdle last week, it won't come up for a vote until at least next week, a spokesperson for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told ABC News. The Trump administration and GOP leaders like McConnell are working to kill the bill and prevent other penalties for the Saudis as they defend America's relationship with them.

That all sets high stakes for Thursday's meeting as several members of Congress look to send a message to both the White House and the Saudis that it is no longer business as usual. Top Senate Republicans like Sen. Bob Corker, Foreign Relations Committee chairman, and Graham are furious over what they call the administration's stonewalling and deception on the role of the crown prince, sometimes known by his initials MBS.

PHOTO: U.S. Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo talks during a press conference after a NATO Foreign Ministers meeting at the NATO headquarters in Brussels, Dec. 4, 2018.John Thys/AFP/Getty Images
U.S. Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo talks during a press conference after a NATO Foreign Ministers meeting at the NATO headquarters in Brussels, Dec. 4, 2018.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary James Mattis said there's no "direct reporting" or "smoking gun" implicating the crown prince, and Trump has said the U.S. may never be able to know. But according to multiple reports, the CIA intercepted messages exchanged between the crown prince and a top adviser who led the mission while it was ongoing.

"I have zero question in my mind that the crown prince, MBS, ordered the killing, monitored the killing, knew exactly what was happening, planned it in advance. If he was in front of a jury, he would be convinced in 30 minutes -- guilty," Corker said Tuesday after being briefed by CIA Director Gina Haspel.

The Saudi Embassy in Washington has denied that, with spokesperson Fatimah Baeshen tweeting Tuesday, "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."

While Pompeo and Mattis also cast doubt on role, Graham dismissed their statements Tuesday as those of "good soldiers" towing the president's line, adding, "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 intricately involved."

With anger bubbling on Capitol Hill, it remains an open question what Congress will and can do next, especially because the White House has fiercely defended the Saudis and the Saudis have warned that any action against the crown prince would be an attack on the country.

PHOTO: Sen. Lindsey Graham waits for President Donald Trump in the Roosevelt Room at the White House, Nov. 14, 2018.Leah Millis/Reuters, FILE
Sen. Lindsey Graham waits for President Donald Trump in the Roosevelt Room at the White House, Nov. 14, 2018.

Still, Graham told ABC News on Wednesday that he was looking to suspend arms sales and U.S. support for the Saudis in Yemen, saying the U.S.-Saudi relationship is "strategically important," but it's also "strategically important that we separate ourselves from the conduct of the crown prince."

Graham said his resolution will go "through the parade of horribles regarding MBS," including his military intervention in Yemen, his crackdown on royal rivals and political dissidents and activists, the detention of Lebanese Prime Minister Said Hariri, the blockade of neighbor and U.S. partner Qatar, and the public spat with Canada over human rights.

It explicitly says the Senate has "a high level of confidence that Mohammed bin Salman was complicit" and "urges the United States Government and the international community to hold all parties, including Mohammed bin Salman, involved in the murder of Jamal Khashoggi accountable."

That bill could be added to the Yemen resolution, according to Graham, who told ABC News he was not inclined to support the withdrawal of U.S. support for the Saudi coalition, but he didn't think any legislation would win enough support without it.

At the same time, Corker said he was working on a resolution similar to Graham's, though he would not share details as it is being crafted. And the meeting Thursday, which Corker is expected to lead, is designed to try to find a consensus “among interested parties.” That product could then be substituted for the Yemen resolution.

It's unlikely Trump would support any of that and, at this point, it's unclear whether Congress has the necessary two-thirds support to override a potential presidential veto. But analysts warn that the administration has to do something now to work with Congress before the situation escalates.

"If you don't do enough now, then the pressure is going to build because the frustration is going to build for doing something much more profound later on, which may not be in our interest in terms of preserving a relationship that still serves us in the broader Middle East," said Dennis Ross, a U.S. diplomat who served both Republican and Democratic presidents, most recently as a special assistant to President Barack Obama.

PHOTO: Senator Bob Corker speaks to members of the media following a closed briefing for US senators on Saudi Arabia in Washington, DC, Nov. 28, 2018.Michael Reynolds/EPA via Shutterstock
Senator Bob Corker speaks to members of the media following a closed briefing for US senators on Saudi Arabia in Washington, DC, Nov. 28, 2018.

Critics also say the Saudis need to be sent a stronger message and Saudi reliance on the U.S. means the relationship could sustain a tough one.

"The Saudis need us a lot more than we need them," Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser to Obama, tweeted last week. "A remarkable show of weakness from the Trump Administration."

But one thing seems to be clear: The crown prince is not going anywhere. He has concentrated so much power within the kingdom and he retains strong popularity among young people who see him as a reformer.

"The Saudis are not going to remove him because we say so," said Ross, now the counselor and a distinguished fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

With Graham promising to withhold arms sales until the crown prince is gone, that sets up a difficult showdown in the weeks and months ahead.

"Saudi Arabia has never been popular in America, but presidents of both parties have recognized the importance of strong ties with Riyadh," wrote Bruce Riedel, a former CIA official now at the Brookings Institution. "This might not survive the accession of Mohammed to the throne."

ABC News' Mariam Khan contributed to this report from Capitol Hill.

News - Senate moving ahead with plans to punish Saudi Arabia over Khashoggi killing as US re-evaluates relationship

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  • John J Guy

    This is going to really punish the murdering authoritarian dictatorship...

    ....They will all be put on the Naughty Step until they are all deeply ashamed and apologetic for torturing and murdering Khashoggi!

  • George286

    Great, but AS IF half of our allies in the third world are not ruthless because that is just how politics are played there, whether we like it or not. In Egypt the Muslim Brotherhood is suppressed because otherwise it would be like Carter pulling support from the Shah, another Iran. They also suppress women and Shiite political figures in SA too. I wonder if the Indignant are also going to condemn al-Assad for torturing an American and 14 other people to death.

  • TexWho

    Mr Bone Saw may be the straw that breaks the camels back (in the case of Trump pig might be a better choice)

  • John S. Henchey

    No doubt the Trump led Republicans will pass a strong resolution that says..."Shame On You".

  • Shut Up Morty

    Just let me get my $400 billion first, then I don't care what y'all do.

  • Prophet With Honor

    A "Sense of the Senate Resolution".
    That is a useless fantasy at best.

  • fmd160

    Graham has been an outspoken critic on this issue.
    This issue and few others anymore lately.

    "While Pompeo and Mattis also cast doubt on role, Graham dismissed their statements Tuesday as those of "good soldiers" towing the president's line"
    And Graham doesn't think he is describing himself? Rolling my eyes.

  • cephalo

    Um, I'll take some leadership with some American values on the side... Whattya mean yer out of that?

  • Smedley D Butler

    The fly in the Senate's ointment is, you guessed it, Mitch the Turtle.

  • GayEGO

    Let us hope the Senate carries through with their plans against Saudi/MBS!

  • Naomi

    How does one trust a man with the world's largest economies in a brawl when that man gets simple numbers so wrong so often? He said 77,000 died of fentynal overdoses, when it was actually 70,000 total drug overdose deaths in the USA.

    He was off on inauguration numbers by millions, said unemployment was at 40%, was wrong about media ratings, said American carnage was over when it went up by 1%, etc.

  • Mick

    What do you get when you put a hammer and a rock together? Something twice as smart as Trump!

  • Matt

    Mitch McConnell will block any attempt to sanction the Sawdis....

  • Stephen Bishop

    WaPo is reporting that the Saudis rented 500 rooms in Trump's hotel right after the election.

  • RedSoxPatriotsCelticsBruinsFan

    cmon dont be stupid. the guy was a member of the muslim brotherhood. his burkade bride to be was 36, he was 60. No loss to anyone.

  • Rubber Banned

    Trump's amorality enabled this murder. The Saudis knew they could do it with impunity because our President couldn't care less if journalists are dismembered and dissolved in acid.

  • Stephen Bishop

    Need to punish Trump, Pompeo and Kelly for coverup attempts.

  • westbrazos

    The Saudis are like Trump.They hate a press that doesn't agree with their every thought.I'm sure Trump would love to do this to Acosta.

  • think before you type

    The only good part of this incident is some bipartisan work to do what’s right.

    Trump is part of this story, but he shouldn’t be the main focus.

    The Saudi government is not a good ally period. We tolerate a lot because we have limited options in that region. I hope we remind them that doing what’s right is important to the US.

  • Bluejay

    Trump will have to bribe MSB with a $50m penthouse so he'll be forgiven.

  • Jackee

    i don't expect trump to do or say anything unless its self-serving..but Pompeo and Mattis, who have carried out missions based on the intelligence gathered by the CIA..(pompeo especially), and with their military/ CIA backgrounds.. wow.. very disappointed that they have sold so much of their integrity to stand behind the private bone spurs

  • cephalo

    This comment was deleted earlier; because it quotes the Quran?

    MBS rightly deduced that America has a criminal in the white house
    who would cover for him. He probably couldn't imagine that popular
    opinion might be a factor, since popular opinion doesn't exist in Saudi
    Arabia.

    Whoever kills a person [unjustly]…it is as though he has killed all mankind. Here we find this verse is quite true. When all mankind knows your a murderer, not much different.

  • westbrazos

    Maybe the Saudis will get mad at Trump for promising them the arms and turn over documents of Trumps dealings with the Saudis.

  • Pologize3

    Why isn't our weak president taking the lead on this?

  • Colinalcarz

    I haven’t heard any response to Graham’s characterization of Pompeo and Mattis’ earlier Senate briefing. It sounded like he was excusing them for just trying to align with the president but it basically called them both liars, which is aligned with the president.

  • Ctrygrl

    I do not believe there is any way that 2/3 of the house will override a white house veto, but just the fact the whipped dog republican senate has finally sat up on its haunches and and snapped back at the president is something. The only thing the republicans could do is block all judicial appointments the way Flake did, but in the new senate that will take 4 republicans instead of the current 2, not happening. The president is going to win this one and congress cannot stop him, taking American integrity down yet another notch to the rest of the world.

  • Citizen123

    Since we have a weak president who won't stand up to Saudi Arabia or Russia the Senate will have to intervene.

  • ohyes2011

    Will we finally be seeing spines in the Republican Party? I won't believe it until they threaten not to vote on any of trumps policies until there is some sort of punishment against Saudi Arabia.

  • BD70

    McConnell only cares about populating the lower courts with conservative judges so he is going to stick by Trump for the duration. I sure wish that turtle was voted out.

  • Thomas

    We can't push the Saudi's too much. They figuratively, and perhaps literally, know where too many bodies are buried.

  • John Rettinger

    Corker should admit to his own rank cowardice and alcoholism.

  • Alex Ross

    The worst FAKE president and Senate EVER will do nothing.

  • Michael McKay

    Waiting for the tweet from Trump saying the Republicans who want to punish the Saudi's over the murder are all Deep State or an angry Dem Mob.

    Nothing makes Trump madder then someone messing with his grifting income.