Corker: White House Like a ‘Public Relations Firm’ for Saudi Arabia

Top foreign relations senator has invoked Magnitsky Act for answers on journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s murder

Retiring Republican Sen. Bob Corker was critical of President Donald Trump’s response to U.S. intelligence agencies assessment of the killing of a Washington Post journalist by Saudi Arabian officials. (Sarah Silbiger/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Sen. Bob Corker, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was “really astounded” by President Donald Trump’s apparent dismissal of U.S. intelligence assessments that Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered the killing of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi last month.

“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,” Corker said in statement on Twitter Tuesday, in response to a statement put out by the White House casting doubt on the Saudi government’s involvement in the journalist’s slaying.

Corker and Sen. Bob Menendez, the top Democrat on his committee, sent a letter to Trump on Tuesday to determine within 120 days whether bin Salman “is responsible for Mr. Khashoggi’s murder.”

The White House statement Tuesday, attributed to Trump, was roundly criticized after the president claimed “we may never know all of the facts” surrounding the slain journalists murder by Saudi government officials at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey.

“Our intelligence agencies continue to assess all information, but it could very well be that the crown prince had knowledge of this tragic event — maybe he did and maybe he didn’t!” Trump said in the statement.

“That being said, we may never know all of the facts surrounding the murder of Mr. Jamal Khashoggi,” Trump said. “The United States intends to remain a steadfast partner of Saudi Arabia to ensure the interests of our country, Israel and all other partners in the region.”

Corker indicated Tuesday that he was not remotely satisfied with the president’s statement that ran counter to the CIA’s claim that it has intelligence substantiating bin Salman’s involvement in Khashoggi’s killing.

“‘Maybe he did and maybe he didn’t’ won’t cut it,” Corker tweeted Tuesday.

Trump has provided at least two reasons for his reticence to hold the Saudi government and the crown prince, to account: the military-industrial complex and oil.

He does not want to scuttle a multi-billion arms deal between American munitions contractors and the Saudi military. And on Wednesday before heading to Mar-a-Lago for the weekend, he signaled that keeping oil prices from the Saudis low played a role in his decision to issue what lawmakers from both parties have uniformly panned as a weak response to the journalist's killing.

“Saudi Arabia, if we broke with them, I think your oil prices would go through the roof. I’ve kept them down. They’ve helped me keep them down,” the president said during a mini-news conference Tuesday as he headed for Marine One en route to his Florida Mar-a-Lago resort for the long Thanksgiving holiday weekend.

“We’re going to stay with Saudi Arabia,” Trump said a few minutes later in another wild 20-minute question-and-answer session on the South Lawn. “Saudi Arabia is probably the second-biggest oil producer. They’ve worked with us very well. We’ve kept oil prices down.”

— John T. Bennett contributed to this report.

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