President Donald Trump refused to meet a legal mandate Friday to tell Congress whether the White House thinks Saudi Arabia’s crown prince is personally responsible for the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
“The President maintains his discretion to decline to act on congressional committee requests when appropriate,” a senior administration official told CNN.
The White House decision came a day after an explosive New York Times report that cited US and foreign officials with direct knowledge of intelligence reports who say that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman told a top aide in 2017 that he would use “a bullet” on Khashoggi.
The senior administration official said “the State Department updates Congress regularly on the status of actions related to the killing of Jamal Khashoggi,” the former royal court insider who became one of bin Salman’s most vocal critics.
‘The law is clear’
Saudi Arabia has admitted that the father of four’s killing in Istanbul was premeditated and carried out by a group of men in the prince’s inner circle. The Washington Post has reported that the CIA has concluded that bin Salman “ordered” the killing. The Kingdom continues to deny the crown prince had any involvement in the effort.
The White House refusal to meet the legal requirement by Friday’s deadline is likely to heighten anger on both sides of the aisle in Congress, where Khashoggi’s killing has galvanized lawmakers who are increasingly intent on pushing back against Trump’s defense of the Kingdom.
Indeed, the immediate reaction from Congress was unequivocal.
“The law is clear,” said Juan Pachon, spokesman for the Democratic side of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “The President has no discretion here. He’s either complying with the law or breaking it.”
The Global Magnitsky Act gives the President 120 days to determine whether a foreign individual is responsible for extrajudicial killings and report the findings to Congress as well as whether the President intends to impose sanctions on that person.
A National Security Council source insisted that the administration is under “no legal obligation” to respond, but added that the State Department would send a letter to Congress on Friday. The source did not disclose the contents of that letter.
And the senior administration official defended Trump’s decision not to meet Friday’s deadline, saying that the US was “the first country to take significant measures, including visa actions and sanctions under the Global Magnitsky Act, against those responsible for this heinous act.”
“Consistent with the previous Administration’s position and the constitutional separation of powers, … the US Government will continue to consult with Congress and work to hold accountable those responsible for Jamal Khashoggi’s killing,” the official said.
Later in the day, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo sent Senate Foreign Relations chairman James Risch, an Idaho Republican, and the ranking Democrat on the committee, Robert Menendez of New Jersey, letters that appeared to lay out administration talking points.
“I received a letter today from Secretary Pompeo which describes the actions taken by the administration to sanction individuals involved in the murder of Jamal Khashoggi and expresses their ongoing efforts to seek justice,” Risch said in a statement. “I anticipate a more detailed briefing from the administration on this issue and look forward to working with them and the members of my committee in our ongoing effort to address the killing of Jamal Khashoggi. Legislation has been introduced on this issue in both the House and Senate, with more to come.”
Later Friday, Menendez released his own statement, which said in part:
“I am very disappointed that the response from Secretary Pompeo doesn’t come close to fulfilling the statutory mandate and demonstrates what the administration has wanted all along – the Khashoggi murder to be forgotten. I will continue to push for the President to fully hold accountable those responsible for the death of Mr. Khashoggi and to uphold United States laws.”
On Saturday, Texas Republican Rep. Michael McCaul, who serves on the House Foreign Affairs committee, issued a statement saying he was “deeply troubled” by the letter.
“The letter does not meet the requirements of the ‘Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act’, which were invoked by letters from the bipartisan leaders of the House and Senate foreign policy committees last October,” McCaul said in the statement.
McCaul called on the Trump administration to “immediately comply with the requirements of the law, and to provide Congress with the information required.”
‘A huge, huge mistake’
The Saudi minister of state for foreign affairs, Adel al-Jubeir, told reporters in Washington Friday that Khashoggi’s murder was a “horrific crime” and a “huge, huge mistake,” but insinuated that there has been an unfair focus on this specific case driven, in part, by politics.
“You have had so many journalists murdered in the last year,” Jubeir said, when asked about criticism from lawmakers. “Are they going to legislate sanctions against all countries where these journalists have been killed?”
“Mistakes happen,” Jubeir told journalists, adding that an internal investigation into the killing is ongoing. “Those responsible will be held accountable.”
The Saudi Foreign Ministry tweeted later on Friday quoting Jubeir and stating that “We will hold who are responsible for the death of Khashoggi to account.”
That is unlikely to assuage Congress, where the President’s decision looks set to draw even more scrutiny to links between Trump, his family and Saudi Arabia. The administration has stressed its reliance on Riyadh as a strategic partner for their Middle Eastern goals – checking Iran, funding an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal and countering ISIS.
But questions remain about financial benefits Trump may have gained through Saudi Arabia’s royal family and the relationship between bin Salman and Jared Kushner, the President’s son-in-law and senior adviser.
Both Democrats and Republicans supported the Global Magnitsky Act request on Khashoggi and bin Salman that Trump refused to answer Friday.
On Friday, lawmakers – furious about the brazen murder and deeply concerned about the fallout from the devastating Saudi-led war in Yemen – again worked in bipartisan fashion to introduce legislation that would require mandatory sanctions on those responsible for Khashoggi’s death, prohibit certain weapons sales to Saudi Arabia and report on human rights within the Kingdom.
Concerns about the destabilizing impact of Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen have only deepened with the publication of a CNN report that shows Riyadh and its coalition partners have transferred weapons sent by the US to al Qaeda-linked fighters, hardline militias and that they’ve found their way into the hands of rebels backed by Iran.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican and usually a staunch Trump supporter, is a cosponsor of the legislation introduced Friday.
“I firmly believe there will be strong bipartisan support for serious sanctions against Saudi Arabia for this barbaric act which defied all civilized norms,” Graham said in a statement. “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 fully realize we have to deal with bad actors and imperfect situations on the international stage,” Graham said. “However, when we lose our moral voice, we lose our strongest asset.”
Menendez said it was time to re-evaluate the relationship with Saudi Arabia and the coalition it leads.
“Seeing as the Trump Administration has no intention of insisting on full accountability for Mr. Khashoggi’s murderers, it is time for Congress to step in and impose real consequences to fundamentally reexamine our relationship with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and with the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen,” Menendez said.
The new bill builds on the first act of broad bipartisan pushback against Trump in December, when the Senate passed a resolution condemning the crown prince for Khashoggi’s murder.
Just prior to passing the resolution by a voice vote, the Senate also overwhelmingly approved a resolution by a 56-41 vote that would require the US to end its military support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen, a move that was also meant to express anger at the Trump administration’s handling of relations with Saudi Arabia.
It was, up to that point, the most significant break within Congress toward Saudi Arabia in decades and the firmest response from Capitol Hill since the Khashoggi murder in October.
CNN’s Kylie Atwood, Sophie Tatum, Ryan Browne, Michelle Kosinski, Jennifer Hansler and Zachary Cohen contributed to this report.