Prominent Republican lawmakers on Tuesday continued to forcefully call for answers and retaliatory action over the disappearance of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi while they wait to see how the Trump administration will respond.
Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida told CNN’s Alisyn Camerota that the situation is “something we have to address from a human rights standpoint,” while GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina threatened on Fox News’ “Fox & Friends” to “sanction the hell” out of Saudi Arabia.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell took a far more cautious tone on the issue, suggesting during an an interview on Bloomberg TV that congressional Republicans are likely to first wait and see what the Trump administration will do.
“I think it’s good the President sent the secretary of state out to talk to the king, and we need to find out first what happened before deciding what kind of response is appropriate,” McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, said on Tuesday as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo held talks with top Saudi leaders.
McConnell added, though, that he “can’t imagine there won’t be” a response if allegations that the Saudi government is responsible for the journalist’s disappearance are proved to be true.
A McConnell aide told CNN the majority leader is briefed regularly on Saudi Arabia. An aide to Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer told CNN that the New York Democrat will be briefed on the Saudi issue Wednesday in Washington.
Trump tweeted on Tuesday afternoon that he “just spoke with the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia who totally denied any knowledge of what took place in their Turkish Consulate.” Kashoggi went missing after he went to the consulate on Oct. 2. Trump added on Twitter, however, that “answers will be forthcoming.”
The previous day, however, the President floated the possibility, without providing evidence, that “rogue killers” could be to blame.
Vice President Mike Pence promised earlier on Tuesday that the administration would “get to the bottom of” what happened. Pence said that “if in fact, Mr. Khashoggi was murdered, we need to know who was responsible, we need to hold those responsible.”
The administration has faced mounting pressure from lawmakers to take action over Khashoggi’s disappearance.
On Tuesday, Rubio said on CNN’s “New Day” that “Congress will act,” adding, “We’ll see what the administration does. It sounds to me like at the end of the day, they will also follow suit.”
Rubio noted, however, that “what those specific measures are obviously is going to be up for debate, but they will be strong and they will be meaningful.”
Graham said on “Fox & Friends” that “it’s up to” the President what he wants to do, but that “I know what I’m going to do: I’m going to sanction the hell out of Saudi Arabia.”
Last week, a bipartisan group of senators, including the top Republican and Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, chairman Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee and ranking member Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey, respectively, sent a letter to the administration triggering an “investigation and Global Magnitsky sanctions determination.”
Under the terms of the Magnitsky legislation, the President can impose sanctions on individuals or countries that are deemed to have committed a human rights violation.
McConnell left the door open to sanctions on Tuesday but was noncommittal, saying the Magnitsky Act “may well be” an appropriate mechanism to deal with the issue. But he said that first, “let’s find out what happened.”
Congress being out of session until the November midterms makes it less likely there would be any legislative push to hold Saudi Arabia accountable if it were proved that the government was responsible for Khashoggi’s disappearance.
But for now at least, Republicans and Democrats seem anxious to send a message to the Trump administration that, in addition to finding out what happened, action will be necessary if the Saudis are behind the disappearance.
Republican Rep. Carlos Curbelo of Florida told CNN’s Poppy Harlow on Tuesday that if it’s proved that the journalist was murdered at the hands of the Saudi government or with the government’s knowledge, “the response must be swift and it must be clear.”
“We cannot tolerate this kind of activity,” the Republican lawmaker said. “I am not accusing anyone yet, but all of the evidence that we’ve seen so far points to the fact that there was some nefarious activity here and Saudi Arabia. … This is in no way compatible with our country’s values.”
When asked if he would support sanctions against Saudi Arabia if the allegations turn out to be true, Curbelo replied that he would, “No question.”
CNN’s Ted Barrett, Jeremy Herb and Clarissa Ward contributed to this report.