Senators furious about the killing of Jamal Khashoggi are working on a bipartisan effort to exert more pressure on the White House as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo insisted Monday the administration is not “covering up for a murder.”
Sen. Bob Menendez, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told CNN Monday that he is working with South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham to “hold the administration’s feet to the fire” on Saudi Arabia and its admitted, pre-meditated murder of the Washington Post journalist.
Graham said he and Menendez are “going to take appropriate action” to put a bill on the President’s desk, and called the murder of Khashoggi “barbaric beyond acceptance.”
“We believe the Crown Prince – MBS – had a hand in this. It couldn’t have happened without his knowledge and approvals and we’re going to take appropriate action,” he added.
Menendez and Graham spoke after the administration’s decision Friday not to properly respond to a congressional deadline requiring the President to determine whether Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is responsible for the murder and if sanctions will be levied as a result.
On Friday, a senior administration official told CNN that “the President maintains his discretion to decline to act on congressional committee requests when appropriate.” And later that day, Pompeo sent letters to Senate Foreign Relations chairman James Risch, an Idaho Republican, and to Menendez, of New Jersey, that appeared to lay out administration talking points.
That response prompted Sen. Tim Kaine, a Virginia Democrat who sits on the Armed Services and Foreign Affairs committees, to charge that the Trump administration “has blatantly turned a blind eye to this crime … despite the fact that the CIA concluded that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman personally ordered Khashoggi’s killing.”
“This amounts to the Trump administration aiding in the cover up of a murder,” Kaine said.
Groups such as the Committee to Protect Journalists and PEN America leveled the same accusation Friday. “Notwithstanding public and Congressional outrage and the reported findings of the CIA, the Trump administration appears to be engaged in a cover-up on behalf of the Saudi government,” the groups said in a statement.
Asked about the criticism, Pompeo pushed back.
“America’s not covering up for a murder,” Pompeo said Monday in Budapest, Hungary. “My response to that is Sen. Kaine is just dead wrong. He’s just flat out wrong. I like Sen. Kaine, I have a lot of respect for Sen. Kaine, Sen. Kaine is just dead wrong.”
“The President’s made very clear, couldn’t have been more clear,” Pompeo continued, “as we get additional information, we’ll continue to hold all of those responsible accountable.”
The administration has revoked the visas and frozen the assets of Saudis allegedly involved in Khashoggi’s October killing and dismemberment in the consulate in Istanbul. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle say that isn’t enough, however, particularly as the CIA has assessed with high confidence that the prince directed Khashoggi’s murder, which was conducted by members of bin Salman’s inner circle.
The administration has taken the stand that there is no smoking gun linking bin Salman to the murder, pinning its defense in part on the way intelligence works and the nature of this case. Agencies assign a confidence level to their findings, which are presented to political leaders, but don’t offer conclusions.
That allows Trump to tell reporters, as he did in November when leaving for Thanksgiving in Florida, that the CIA “didn’t make a determination … they have nothing definitive and the fact is maybe he did, maybe he didn’t.”
Violating the law
Trump has repeatedly stressed that Saudi Arabia is too valuable an economic partner to push the issue of bin Salman’s involvement, often exaggerating the amount of arms deals the US has made with the kingdom.
Administration officials such as Pompeo have stressed the US reliance on Riyadh as a strategic partner for the administration’s Middle Eastern goals – checking Iran, funding an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal and countering ISIS.
Pompeo’s declarations are doing little to assuage lawmakers’ anger, which only seems to be growing.
“The answer the administration gave us does not comply with the law,” Menendez told CNN on Monday. “They’re in violation of the law. This is not a question you can choose to answer or not. It is mandatory under the law, a law that I helped write. So at the end of the day, we’re looking at different ways to compel the administration to do so, or face consequences for not doing so,” he added.
Menendez said those possible consequences may include holds on nominations or continuing to hold up funding on arms sales.
“We’re looking at an array of things to have the administration understand that they cannot just skirt not only the will of the Congress, but the law of the land,” he said.
CNN’s Michael Conte and Kristin Wilson contributed to this report