BY PETER HOLLEY, FELICIA SONMEZ & KAROUN DEMIRJIAN
WASHINGTON (THE WASHINGTON POST)--Saudi Arabia’s belated explanation for the death of journalist Jamal Khashoggi drew deep skepticism Sunday from congressional lawmakers and mounting bipartisan calls for the kingdom — and possibly Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman personally — to face severe repercussions.
Senior Republicans and Democrats proposed sanctions on the longtime U.S ally, the expulsion of the Saudi ambassador and the cutting of arms sales, among other possible punishments. Lawmakers also said that the United States should refuse to have relations with Mohammed and demand that Saudi Arabia replace him as crown prince if he is found to be responsible — as members of both parties said they believe will happen.
“It’s my thinking that MBS was involved in this, that he directed this and that this person was purposefully murdered," Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) said Sunday in an appearance on CNN’s “State of the Union,” referring to the crown prince.
Corker –– who chairs the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee –– called for a “collective response” by the United States, Britain, France and Germany if an investigation reveals that the crown prince was behind Khashoggi’s killing inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul.
“Sanctions should be put in place for anybody who has had anything to do with it,” the Tennessee Republican told CNN’s Jake Tapper.
During a Sunday appearance on NBC News’s “Meet the Press,” Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill) said the Saudi ambassador should be formally expelled from the United States if an investigation reveals the crown prince’s involvement. The suggestion echoed a call from Rep. Mike Coffman (R-Colo.) a day earlier.
Also appearing on “Meet the Press,” Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) called for a strong response to the Saudi government.
"We’ve got to get to the bottom of this,” Tillis said. “In Saudi Arabia, you don’t do something of this magnitude without having clearance from the top. We need to find out who that is and hold them accountable.”
Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) said he believes the crown prince is ultimately responsible — and should pay a price.
“You’ll never convince me that he didn’t do this," Graham said on Fox News Channel’s “Sunday Morning Futures”
“Saudi Arabia is an ally, but this behavior is outside the norm to the point that the people involved need to be removed, in my view," he added. "Saudi Arabia is a country. MBS is a person. And I am willing to separate the two.”
President Trump has continued to voice support for the crown prince, even as he has backed away from describing Saudi Arabia’s story as credible.
“Obviously there’s been deception and there’s been lies,” Trump said in an interview with The Washington Post on Saturday when pressed on the many discrepancies in the changing accounts from the Saudis. “Their stories are all over the place.”
He did not call for the ouster of Mohammed and instead praised the crown prince’s leadership, calling him “a strong person, he has very good control.”
On Sunday, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) said on “Fox News Sunday” that he was certain that Mohammed was responsible for Khashoggi’s disappearance and death, reasoning that “there’s no way 15 people are sent from Saudi Arabia to Turkey to kill a dissident without the approval of the crown prince.”
“It stretches credulity to think that the crown prince wasn’t involved in this,” Paul said, calling for an end to American relations with the crown prince and for his replacement.
In an interview Sunday with Fox News Channel’s Bret Baier, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said that an investigation is underway to determine how Khashoggi was killed and what happened to his body. He pushed back against Paul and others who have said they are certain the crown prince was involved, arguing that it is “very surprising” that lawmakers who are “6,000 miles away” could make such declarations about what happened.
“There is the presumption of innocence until proven guilty," al-Jubeir said, deploying an argument that Trump himself made in a recent interview with the Associated Press.
Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, called the moment “a relationship-altering event for the U.S. and Saudi Arabia."
"We ought to suspend military sales, we ought to suspend certain security assistance, and we ought to impose sanctions on any of those that were directly involved in this murder,” Schiff said said on ABC’s “This Week” "This really ought to be something that causes us to do a reexamination of our relationship with Saudi Arabia.”
Rep. Pete King (R-N.Y.), who is also a member of the House Intelligence Committee, said that despite the denials, the Saudi government's intentions were clear.
"Obviously, there was an intent, I believe, to kill him," King said of Khashoggi. He said that the U.S. should take some retaliatory steps, such as delaying arms sales, but also warned that the U.S. "not hurt ourselves," given the value of the U.S.-Saudi alliance.
“What happened here was savagery, and we can’t go along with their cover story,” King said.
Paul has recommended curtailing arms sales to Saudi Arabia to punish them over Khashoggi’s murder and other aggressive ventures, arguing on Fox News Sunday that “that’s the only thing the Saudis will listen to.” He criticized Trump’s argument that the United States shouldn’t scrap the latest $110 billion arms deal over concern for the American jobs those contracts support.
“I don’t think arms should ever be seen as a jobs program,” Paul said. “We should never sell arms to any country unless it’s in our national security interest.”
“This is just another in a line of long instances of Saudi insults to the civilized world,” Paul added.
Paul has been one of Congress most critical voices on Saudi policy, pointing out that the Kingdom has financially supported and offered safe haven to extremists, and arguing that its air campaign in Yemen’s civil war “actually increases our national risk.”
He guessed that if the U.S. Congress had a vote on arms sales to Saudi Arabia in the next couple of weeks, “we would win overwhelmingly, so I think the powers that be will try to prevent us from having that vote.”
Congress cannot vote to block Saudi arms sales until those arms sales are announced – leading Paul to guess Sunday that “the arms sales will go on, I think they will avoid announcing the arms sales to prevent us from blocking them.”
Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) has also presently blocked the transfer of precision-guided munitions to Saudi Arabia over concerns that they might be used against civilians in Yemen – a reason why several members of Congress have said in recent days that a vote to block arms sales is largely moot.
It is likely that the House will vote next month on a measure to curtail U.S. military, intelligence and air support for the Saudi campaign in Yemen under the War Powers Resolution, but it is unclear what its prospects of passage are. Last year, the Senate failed to muster enough support to pass a similar resolution.
Paul said the United States could exercise “incredible leverage” over Saudi Arabia by curtailing support for its air campaign, as the Kingdom’s planes are all American – meaning they need American servicing and support.
“The Saudis need us much more than we need them,” Paul said, figuring that the Saudi air force “can’t last more than a couple of months” without U.S. backing.