Senate Republicans are fuming at President Donald Trump for telling lawmakers he would disregard a law requiring a report to Congress determining who is responsible for the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
The uproar among Republicans is just the latest example of their deep discontent with the president’s foreign policy. It could prompt even more defections in favor of a Democrat-led resolution coming before the House and Senate this month to cut off U.S. support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen’s civil war.
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“It’s not a good way to start the new Congress in its relationship with the Foreign Relations Committee,” said Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, a Republican on that panel, in an interview. “It violates the law. And the law is clear about those timelines. I’m urging them and I expect them to comply with the law.”
Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado, a vulnerable Republican who faces re-election in 2020, said “the administration needs to submit the report,” adding: “There’s no excuse. They must submit it.”
On Friday, the Trump administration said it reserved the right to decline lawmakers’ demand under the Magnitsky Act that the president report to Congress with a determination of who is responsible for Khashoggi’s October slaying inside the Saudi Embassy in Istanbul.
“They were supposed to make a report on Friday and they didn’t do it,” Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) said. “And the only thing I can say now is they better have a good excuse for not issuing it.”
“They owe us a report,” Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) said. “We can make a fuss about it.”
Last year, then-Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and his Democratic counterpart, Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey, used the Magnitsky Act to trigger a 120-day investigation, aiming to force the administration to determine who is responsible for Khashoggi’s murder and possibly impose sanctions. Friday’s deadline came and went, with a senior administration official saying Trump “maintains his discretion to decline to act on congressional committee requests when appropriate.”
Now retired, Corker declined to comment on the administration ignoring the law, as did several other Republicans who had supported efforts to compel a determination from the administration.
Gardner said the Foreign Relations Committee “should take action” to force the administration to comply with the law. Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), another member of the panel, said lawmakers “want to get more information from the administration than we’ve received so far. The president has to comply with the Magnitsky Act. He has not done so in a timely manner yet.”
Despite those calls from the rank and file, the committee’s chairman, Sen. Jim Risch (R-Idaho), hasn’t shown discomfort with the administration’s Friday letter. He wouldn’t commit to further action to compel compliance with the Magnitsky Act, a marked contrast to Corker’s time as chairman.
“We asked for the information. They sent it. And I put out a press release,” Risch told reporters.
Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas, the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, was among the first Republicans to criticize the Trump administration for its response. He said he was “deeply troubled” by the administration’s decision not to comply with Congress’ request.
Democrats said the administration’s response amounted to a cover-up and a willing violation of the law. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo defended the administration on Monday, telling reporters during a stop in Hungary, “America is not covering up for a murder.”
Yet Pompeo’s comments did little to satisfy Democrats.
“They are not following the law. … It’s just wrong,” said Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), a senior member of the committee. “We’re going to get back to the kingdom. There’s going to be legislation dealing with the kingdom. The fact that they didn’t respond to Magnitsky is not going to put the administration in a strong position for defending their policies.”
The Saudi government has said Khashoggi’s murder was the result of a rogue operation that was executed without the knowledge of the kingdom’s higher-ups. But U.S. intelligence officials have reportedly concluded that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman — the kingdom’s de facto ruler — ordered the killing, and lawmakers who received classified briefings on the matter said there was no doubt that the crown prince was behind the grisly murder. Moreover, The New York Times reported last week that U.S. intelligence reports showed the crown prince vowed to use a “bullet” on Khashoggi.
Trump has maintained his posture toward Saudi Arabia — even backing the kingdom’s denials — and argued that the arms sales are good for the U.S. economy.
The U.S. has imposed sanctions on 17 Saudis believed to be involved in the killing, but some lawmakers have pushed Trump to impose human rights sanctions on Riyadh’s leaders and cut off U.S. weapons sales to the country.
Menendez and a bipartisan group of senators introduced legislation last week to require sanctions, ban U.S. refueling of Saudi aircraft fighting in Yemen’s civil war and cut off some weapons sales. Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, is working on a companion bill, an aide said.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), chief GOP sponsor of the Menendez bill, appeared resigned to the administration’s inaction, saying: “That’s up to them. I’m going to move [on the legislation].”
On Friday — the day of the Magnitsky deadline — the Saudi Foreign Ministry tweeted what many saw as a threat to the U.S. government over its pending response to the Khashoggi killing. “Our leadership is a red line,” the tweet read, adding: “We warn against any attempt to link Khashoggi’s crime to our leadership.”