Calls are mounting on Capitol Hill from Republicans and Democrats alike to impose stiff penalties on Saudi Arabia for its suspected murder of a prominent dissident journalist, as new gruesome details were leaked by Turkish intelligence on Wednesday.
The growing congressional outrage over the reported torture, beheading and dismemberment two weeks ago of Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul is diametrically opposed to the signals coming from President Donald Trump, who has criticized the rush to judge the kingdom. A columnist for The Washington Post, Khashoggi was a resident of Virginia.
The widening divide between congressional and executive views suggests lawmakers will have to take the lead in punishing Riyadh and any steps they take will need to be strong enough to withstand a potential presidential veto.
“Here we go again with you’re guilty until proven innocent,” Trump said in a Tuesday interview with The Associated Press, comparing the situation to the recent bitter Supreme Court confirmation battle over Brett M. Kavanaugh.
Watch: Trump Suggests ‘Rogue Killers’ Could Be Responsible for Saudi Journalist’s Death
In recent years, Saudi officials have spent generously booking rooms at Trump hotels. The president has also bragged about his real estate deals with the kingdom. Since Khashoggi’s disappearance, Trump has repeatedly highlighted how much money Saudi Arabia spends on U.S. weapons, arguing that to suspend arm sales to the Arab country would cost American jobs.
Two conservative Republican senators, Marco Rubio of Florida and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, indicated Tuesday they were willing to set aside longstanding mutual security interests, which under the Obama administration allowed the kingdom to purchase tens of billions of dollars’ worth of sensitive high-tech weapons, to hold Saudi Arabia accountable for any transgressions.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was less heated in a Tuesday interview with Bloomberg TV but said “I can’t imagine there won’t be” punishment for Saudi Arabia if it is determined to have assassinated Khashoggi.
There are three main options lawmakers have discussed: targeted sanctions against certain Saudi individuals involved in the suspected killing, suspending some or all arms exports to the kingdom, and cutting off U.S. military logistical cooperation in the Yemeni civil war.
These options come with differing degrees of severity as well as legislative hurdles.
Senators earlier this month invoked a provision of the 2016 Global Magnitsky Act, requiring the Trump administration to determine within four months whether “any foreign person” was complicit in Khashoggi’s disappearance, torture and death; and to inform Congress whether those persons determined responsible will be sanctioned by the United States. Those authorized sanctions include visa denials and the seizure of any U.S.-based assets.
The Magnitsky law leaves considerable discretion to the administration in determining who is responsible for Khashoggi’s assumed death and whether to punish them.
If Trump decides not to sanction any of the 15 Saudi individuals that Turkey has identified as participants in the operation to kill Khashoggi or anyone else higher up in the royal court hierarchy, then lawmakers could go over the president’s head by passing mandatory sanctions against the individuals. A number of the identified Saudi individuals have high-ranking government jobs, and several have close ties to the kingdom’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman.
There is precedent for this happening. In the summer of 2017, Congress in a near-unanimous vote cleared a law Trump disliked that required mandatory sanctions on Russia for its 2016 election interference.
The Magnitsky law does not provide an expedited process for lawmakers to pass sanctions if the executive branch proves unwilling to impose them on human rights violators.
So any effort to impose targeted sanctions would likely have to go through the normal committee process. All but one of the 21 members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee as well as the Republican and Democratic heads of the House Foreign Affairs Committee have signed letters to the president pressing for a Magnitsky investigation into Khashoggi’s fate. That suggests a strong appetite at the committee level to see sanctions imposed.
Ending weapon sales
Saudi Arabia is the world’s biggest purchaser of U.S. weapons. During the Obama administration, the kingdom purchased over $65 billion worth of military equipment, according to a September report by the Congressional Research Service.
Trump has repeatedly said he has secured $110 billion worth of weapons deals with the Saudis in his first state visit in the summer of 2017 to the Gulf kingdom
According to the CRS report, the figure includes weapon sales developed under the Obama administration that lawmakers were either formally notified of or preliminarily consulted on. There were also some potential new deals that Saudi Arabia signed “memorandums of intent” on but no new contracts.
There are no formal notices of weapon sales to Saudi Arabia that Congress is considering. However, Senate Foreign Relations ranking Democrat Robert Menendez of New Jersey in June placed a preliminary informal hold on a potential White House notice of a plan to sell the kingdom precision-guided munitions for use in its war against Iranian-backed Houthi insurgents in Yemen.
Menendez has given no indication he plans to release his hold. But should the administration decide to flout decades of bipartisan presidential custom in respecting such holds and try to push the sale through, Congress would have 30 days to review and potentially block the weapons sale.
If a munitions or other weapons sale to Saudi Arabia is formally sent to Congress, Sen. Christopher S. Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat, and Sen. Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican, have promised to offer a joint resolution that would block the deal. In June 2017, the duo led an unsuccessful effort to block a similar munitions sale to Riyadh. The close floor vote then was 47-53.
Were a similar vote held today, it would undoubtedly have more support though it is not clear if enough Republicans would join in to make it veto-proof.
Cutting off support in Yemen
Parallel to the effort to end weapon sales to Saudi Arabia is one to cut off U.S. military assistance to the Saudi-led coalition’s war against the Houthis. That assistance includes critical midair refueling of coalition bombers plus intelligence sharing for targeting purposes and logistical support.
Under the War Powers Resolution, lawmakers have the right to order a withdrawal of U.S. military support from any mission not expressly authorized by Congress, such as in the Yemeni civil war. According to the United Nations, the conflict is causing a humanitarian crisis that has left up to 14 million people at risk of famine.
In March, three senators — Utah Republican Mike Lee, Vermont independent Bernie Sanders and Murphy — forced a vote under the War Powers Resolution to end U.S. military support to Saudi Arabia in Yemen. That measure was defeated on 44-55 vote, though at least a few of the senators who formerly voted in favor of maintaining military support such as Senate Armed Services ranking Democrat Jack Reed of Rhode Island have now switched their positions.
And in the House, California Democratic Rep. Ro Khanna in late September filed a bipartisan measure with support from top national security Democrats that would cut off all logistical and targeting support to the Saudi coalition.
If Democrats retake the House in the November midterms, prospects are high that Khanna’s resolution will receive a floor vote in early 2019 if Republicans do no not allow one sooner.
Niels Lesniewski contributed to this report.