Congress eyes Trump’s re­fusal to re­buke Saudis

Law­mak­ers seek brief­ing, look to turn up pres­sure

USA TODAY Weekend Extra - - FRONT PAGE - Deirdre Sh­es­green

WASH­ING­TON – Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump may have poked a con­gres­sional bear with his re­peated re­fusal to con­demn Saudi Ara­bia for its role in the mur­der of Wash­ing­ton Post colum­nist Ja­mal Khashoggi.

Law­mak­ers have un­til now done lit­tle to push back against Trump’s ap­proach to for­eign pol­icy – stand­ing aside as he launched a trade war, picked fights with long-time U.S. al­lies and em­braced dic­ta­tors from North Korea to Rus­sia.

But the Khashoggi killing has riled Repub­li­cans and Democrats alike, spark­ing a nascent leg­isla­tive re­bel­lion that prom­ises to es­ca­late when Democrats take con­trol of the House in Jan­uary. A clash over Trump’s han­dling of the jour­nal­ist’s mur­der – and his broader em­brace of Saudi Ara­bia – could un­fold as early as next week, when Congress is set to re­con­vene.

Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., chair­man of the Se­nate For­eign Re­la­tions Com­mit­tee, has re­quested a clas­si­fied brief­ing from top Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials – in­clud­ing Sec­re­tary of State Mike Pom­peo and De­fense Sec­re­tary Jim Mat­tis – on Khashoggi’s mur­der as well

as the U.S. sup­port for a Saudi-led bomb­ing cam­paign in Ye­men.

In that closed-door ses­sion, ten­ta­tively set for next week, law­mak­ers are ex­pected to grill Pom­peo and Mat­tis about the CIA’s re­ported con­clu­sion that Saudi Ara­bia’s crown prince, Mo­ham­mad bin Sal­man, or­dered Khashoggi’s Oct. 2 mur­der in­side the Saudi con­sulate in Is­tan­bul. The jour­nal­ist had gone into the diplo­matic fa­cil­ity to get documents he needed for his up­com­ing mar­riage to a Turk­ish woman.

Trump has pub­licly ques­tioned the CIA’s assess­ment, em­pha­siz­ing Sal­man’s de­nials even as the Saudi gov­ern­ment’s ac­count of Khashoggi’s fate has shifted. On Thurs­day, Trump said the crown prince “re­gret­ted the death more than I do” and re­it­er­ated his po­si­tion that there was no con­clu­sive ev­i­dence ty­ing the crown prince to Khashoggi’s mur­der. “The CIA doesn’t say they did it. They do point out cer­tain things, and in point­ing out those things, you can con­clude that maybe he did or maybe he didn’t,” the pres­i­dent told re­porters in Florida, where he is spend­ing Thanks­giv­ing weekend with his fam­ily.

This week, Corker and Sen. Bob Me­nen­dez, the top Demo­crat on the For­eign Re­la­tions Com­mit­tee, re­sponded to Trump’s equiv­o­ca­tion by forc­ing the ad­min­is­tra­tion to de­ter­mine whether the crown prince was re­spon­si­ble for Khashoggi’s mur­der. The sen­a­tors used a pro­vi­sion in the Mag­nit­sky Act to trig­ger that assess­ment.

In the House, Rep. Adam Schiff, DCalif., who is poised to chair the In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee come Jan­uary, also has vowed to scru­ti­nize Trump’s state­ments down­play­ing the CIA’s assess­ment, as well as the broader U.S. al­liance with Saudi Ara­bia.

“Cer­tainly we will be delv­ing fur­ther into the mur­der of Khashoggi, and I want to make sure that the com­mit­tee is fully de­briefed on it,” Schiff told The Wash­ing­ton Post. “We will cer­tainly want to ex­am­ine what the in­tel­li­gence com­mu­nity knows about the mur­der.”

“It’s un­ac­cept­able to mur­der a jour­nal­ist.” Rep. Eliot En­gel, D-N.Y.,

Rep. Eliot En­gel, D-N.Y., who is likely to snag the gavel of the House For­eign Af­fairs Com­mit­tee when Democrats take con­trol, also has promised to re-ex­am­ine the U.S-Saudi al­liance in the wake of Khashoggi’s death.

“It’s un­ac­cept­able to mur­der a jour­nal­ist,” En­gel said in a state­ment this week. “When the United States is lead­ing on the global stage, we can ap­ply the sort of pres­sure that ad­vances our val­ues. In­stead, the pres­i­dent is act­ing as though the United States is de­pen­dent on Saudi Ara­bia and not the other way around.”

One el­e­ment of the U.S-Saudi re­la­tion­ship that is ripe for leg­isla­tive push back is the war in Ye­men, a deadly con­flict that has sparked the world’s worst hu­man­i­tar­ian disas­ter. The war is a proxy bat­tle be­tween Saudi Ara­bia and its arch­en­emy in the re­gion, Iran. The U.S. has sup­ported a Saudi-led coali­tion that is try­ing to de­feat the Ira­ni­an­backed Houthi rebels who over­threw Ye­men’s pre­vi­ous gov­ern­ment.

With mil­lions of Ye­meni civil­ians on the brink of star­va­tion, the war has be­come in­creas­ingly con­tro­ver­sial – and the U.S. role has grown in­creas­ingly un­pop­u­lar on Capi­tol Hill. Khashoggi’s mur­der has gal­va­nized op­po­nents to press for an end to the con­flict.

Sens. Bernie San­ders, a Ver­mont lib­eral, and Mike Lee, a Utah con­ser­va­tive, are hop­ing to force a vote on a war pow­ers res­o­lu­tion that would force the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion to end its mil­i­tary role in the con­flict. That mea­sure could come up for a vote next week.

Khashoggi’s mur­der “un­der­scores how ur­gent it has be­come for the United States to re­de­fine our re­la­tion­ship with the King­dom of Saudi Ara­bia,” San­ders said in a state­ment promis­ing to push for a vote on his pro­posal.

It’s not clear if that mea­sure has enough sup­port to pass the Se­nate. House Repub­li­can lead­ers blocked a sim­i­lar mea­sure in that cham­ber this month, but pro­po­nents hope to re­vive it.

“Should they be able to pass it in the Se­nate, that would put pres­sure on the House again,” said Rep. Mark Po­can, DWis., a chief backer of the war pow­ers mea­sure. “Oth­er­wise if that doesn’t hap­pen, we will in the next Congress be in a bet­ter po­si­tion to move it for­ward.”


Pres­i­dent Trump has pub­licly ques­tioned the CIA’s assess­ment of the mur­der of Ja­mal Khashoggi.

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