Politics

Lawmakers Want to Push Back at Saudi Arabia With or Without Trump

Question may be whether there is a veto-proof majority for legislation

Sen. Lindsey Graham expects bipartisan support for sanctions against Saudi Arabia. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

At least when it comes to Congress, Tuesday’s afternoon statement from President Donald Trump might not prove helpful to the cause of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and the Saudi royal family.

Even some of Trump’s strongest supporters on Capitol Hill are insisting the legislative branch will act to respond to the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, even though there is still no sign of it on the legislative agenda.

Sen. Lindsey Graham issued a statement pointing back to his past criticism of President Barack Obama’s Middle East policy and directing some of that criticism in Trump’s direction.

“I firmly believe there will be strong bipartisan support for serious sanctions against Saudi Arabia, including appropriate members of the royal family, for this barbaric act which defied all civilized norms,” the South Carolina Republican said. “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.”

“I’m pretty sure this statement is Saudi Arabia First, not America First. I’m also pretty sure John Bolton wrote it,” Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul said in a tweet, responding to Trump’s national security adviser.  “I will continue to press for legislation to stop the Saudi arms sales and the war in Yemen.”

Before the Thanksgiving break, Paul forced a floor vote on what was an imprecise proxy for the Yemen intervention by seeking to stop an arms sale to Bahrain. The Senate adopted a motion to table that measure, effectively killing it, 77-21.

But a shot across the bow against Saudi Arabia, via, for instance, a blockade of a weapons transaction with the Kingdom might be more realistic to get enough votes to pass the Senate — if not necessarily with a veto-proof majority.

Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker, a Tennessee Republican who is retiring at the end of the Congress, said on Twitter that, “I never thought I’d see the day a White House would moonlight as a public relations firm for the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia.”

Democratic Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin of Maryland said that while he agreed Saudi Arabia has been an important security partner, the murder of the Washington Post journalist inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul cannot go unaddressed.

“Congress will need to act where President Trump is refusing,” Cardin said. “We will send the right signal to the world that despite our current president, America will continue to be a beacon of justice and defender of human rights.”

U.S. intelligence agencies have reportedly attributed responsibility for Khashoggi’s death to the Saudi crown prince, and a senior member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Ron Wyden, D-Ore., wants to force the formal disclosure of such a finding.

Giving the Saudis a free pass here reveals this administration’s crippling weakness, even in the face of the murder of a journalist and U.S. resident, Wyden argues.

“I renew my call for CIA Director [Gina Haspel] and [Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats] to state publicly what the U.S. Intelligence Community believes about the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. If they will not, I intend to offer legislation to require the IC to release an unclassified public assessment of who ordered Mr. Khashoggi’s killing when the Senate returns next week,” Wyden said.

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