A defense contractor pressing for a U.S.-Saudi weapons sale visited Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker’s office recently. And as the Tennessee Republican tells it, he gave the man a stark warning: “Look. Do not push this.”
“If it came to a vote in the Senate, it would fail,” Corker recalled telling the contractor about the chance that lawmakers would halt the Saudi arms deal he was pursuing. That was before journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a critic of the Middle Eastern kingdom’s government, vanished after entering the Saudi consulate in Turkey.
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Now Khashoggi’s disappearance and alleged murder is pushing Capitol Hill’s long-simmering frustrations with Riyadh to a boiling point. Whether that fury manifests in a formal rejection of a U.S.-Saudi weapons sale remains to be seen. But interviews with more than a dozen senators reveal bipartisan pressure to hold the Saudis accountable — while the White House tries to keep a lukewarm distance from the case.
Weapons sales “are certainly going to be a huge concern if” the Saudis are proven responsible for Khashoggi’s vanishing, said Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner, a member of GOP leadership.
“Saudi Arabia needs to clear this up immediately,” Gardner said. “Obviously, there’s a way that this can end very badly, and that is if Saudi is indeed responsible for this — as, at least reports I am seeing, would point to that direction.”
That aisle-crossing anger over Khashoggi is again testing GOP willingness to break from President Donald Trump, whose administration has urged an investigation by the Saudi government that’s believed to be culpable. Trump has shown little interest in punishing Saudi Arabia, saying that Khashoggi “is not a United States citizen” and “I don’t like the concept” of halting arms sales after vowing to “get to the bottom of” what happened to the journalist.
“We’ve got some people who are pretty animated by all of this. And some probably less so. We’ve got extremes,” said Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, the No. 3 Senate Republican, who said he was waiting for more information before taking a firm position on arms sales.
“It’s important to have allies in that part of the world,” Thune added. “But I do think there are lines that get crossed from time to time that require a response.”
The last time the Senate took up a portion of Trump’s $110 billion Saudi arms deal, the sale survived on a 47-53 vote. Two of the five Democrats who voted against blocking that sale said in interviews this week that they could reexamine that stance based on the outcome of an investigation into Khashoggi’s apparent abduction.
“I certainly think if it’s determined that the leader of Saudi Arabia had this journalist murdered, that everything should be on the table in terms of our relationship with Saudi Arabia,” Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) said.
One Republican senator who voted against blocking arms sales last year after wrestling with the decision also raised an alarm about Khashoggi, insisting on anonymity to be candid: “Something like this could be a tipping point for me and for others.”
Khashoggi, a vocal critic of the Saudi regime, was last seen entering the government’s Istanbul consulate on Oct. 2. Saudi officials have denied any improper behavior, claiming that he left the building later that day. But Turkish intelligence sources have alleged that Khashoggi was killed inside the consulate in a Saudi-government-approved assassination.
Corker said this week that available evidence points to Saudi responsibility for Khashoggi’s vanishing and alleged murder. He led 21 fellow senators in both parties this week in asking Trump for a U.S. inquiry into Khashoggi’s death that could end in sanctions, but State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert told reporters that “we don’t know the facts of this case just yet. So I think they’re getting ahead of themselves at this point.”
The House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.) and top Democrat Rep. Eliot Engel of New York urged Trump on Friday to take several steps in response to Khashoggi’s disappearance, including a review of Saudi nationals holding diplomatic and consular credentials in the United States. “[M]urder and other blatant violations of international norms and agreements cannot be done with impunity,” they told Trump.
A joint Saudi-Turkish investigation is underway, and multiple U.S. companies have pulled out of a major investment conference set for later this month in Riyadh. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, however, told CNBC Friday that he still plans to attend and described the Saudis as “a very good partner.” And Trump told reporters on Friday that he would discuss Khashoggi’s disappearance with the Saudi king “pretty soon.”
Some of his fellow Republicans, though, are reassessing Washington’s long-held view of Riyadh as a staunch U.S. ally. Sen. Todd Young (R-Ind.), who voted to block the arms deal last year, asked Mnuchin to bow out and avoid “the erroneous and counterproductive message that all is well.”
“We need to figure out what the hell went on and get to the bottom of it,” said Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), who admitted that her opinion on Saudi Arabia has changed for the worse after Khashoggi disappeared.
Ernst added that “I’ll reserve any discussion of” blocking arms sales “until we get more facts,” but that “something needs to be done.”
U.S.-Saudi politics don’t easily fall along party lines, given that the kingdom has aligned against Washington’s longtime antagonists in Iran. But tension over Saudi policy is rising in both parties thanks to U.S. support for the Saudi-backed side in the violent Yemeni war – creating a harsh climate for arms sales that Corker recalled telling the defense contractor about even before Khashoggi went missing.
As the journalist’s disappearances draws global attention to Saudi Arabia, some top Democrats are calling for a significant reordering of America’s relationship with Riyadh.
“I know what I’m thinking: I’m thinking we’ve got to cut off the assistance from going from Saudi Arabia to Yemen,” said Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.). “People are fed up with the Saudis. If we don’t make it clear to them, shame on us.”
“This is a brazen assault on the freedom of the press and a slap in the face to the United States, if this murder occurred, as it seems it did,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), who’s planning to again partner with Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) on forcing a vote on the next Saudi arms sale that’s formally sent to Congress.
That sale could sit in limbo for longer than expected, given the informal hold imposed in June by New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez, the Democrats’ senior member on the Foreign Relations panel. Once any new Saudi arms deal comes before Congress, any measure disapproving of it would get privileged consideration in the Senate but not in the House. That could put more pressure on the Trump administration to resolve lawmakers’ concerns with U.S.-Saudi ties while Republicans still control the House, giving them power to slow down any blockade attempts.
“Obviously, we’ve got common adversaries and common interests. But there are limits,” said Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn, who helped write a bill that allowed 9/11 survivors to proceed with a lawsuit against Saudi Arabia. “We just don’t know the facts yet. We know what the allegations are … we should not jump to conclusions.”
And even if congressional outrage over Khashoggi fades amid a crush of campaign-season energy, the GOP has a healthy number of skeptics about using weapons sales to broadcast discontent with Saudi Arabia.
“Everybody’s concerned about it. It’s like a mystery novel or spy thriller,” said Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), a former Intelligence chairman. But blocking arms deals “would be a mistake at this point,” Roberts said. “This is the crown prince, he’s new: apparently a pretty rough customer.”