For once, even Republican senators sounded actually mad and distressed by the Trump administration’s blatant prevarication. They were denied a briefing by CIA director Gina Haspel, reportedly at the White House’s direction, concerning the slaying of Jamal Khashoggi, a Post contributing columnist. (Presumably, Haspel would have told the truth — namely that her agency has a high level of confidence in the conclusion that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia played a role in Khashoggi’s death, which occurred at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2.)
Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) said that senators were “frustrated” by Haspel’s absence, while the usually pliant Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) declared: “I am not going to be denied the ability to be briefed by the CIA — that we have oversight of — about whether or not their assessment supports my belief that this could not have happened without MBS knowing.” Graham also said he would not vote on must-pass bills until he had the briefing. (He did, however, later vote to advance the nomination of controversial judicial nominee Thomas Farr, who has been widely condemned for voter suppression efforts.) Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, chimed in as well:
It now remains to be seen whether they hold their ground. (It would be only the second time they’ve stood up to President Trump, the first being on sanctions against Russia early in his term).
Democrats were livid. Sen. Robert Menendez (N.J.), the ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, characterized the decision to withhold Haspel as “outrageous.” If Democrats held the majority, Trump would not be able to pull off the whitewash. With Republicans, you never know.
Several points should be underscored.
First, Haspel has been undermined and undercut. The administration is advancing a position she knows to be untrue and is preventing her from informing Congress. The new Democrat-controlled House may call her as a witness next year, but she should quit, frankly, to preserve what dignity and integrity she has.
Second, the briefing conducted by Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo should erase the notion they are responsible adults in the room. The hyped the U.S.-Saudi relationship, and Mattis disingenuously suggested we somehow would hold the Saudis to account. The Post reports:
Mattis contended it is necessary and possible to demand accountability from the Saudi government, which has told several, shifting versions of Khashoggi’s fate at a Saudi consulate in Istanbul, “while recognizing the reality of Saudi Arabia as a necessary partner.”
Of course, Trump is refusing to hold the Saudis responsible and is trying to exempt them from punishment. Even worse, Mattis contributed to the dissembling by insisting there was no “smoking gun” showing that the crown prince — who is also known as MBS — ordered the murder, which I suppose would have to be a full confession. (If the evidence is not definitive, why not let Haspel go to Capitol Hill?) Mattis’s reputation will be blemished by this incident.
Additionally, hiding the ball doesn’t change the facts. Trump is so bamboozled by the Saudis (for unclear reasons), and his senior officials are so bereft of nuance, that they declare their only choice is between bear-hugging MBS and letting Iran run rampant — so much so that the administration feels compelled to help cover up a grisly murder, thereby giving a green light to despots around the world to commit atrocities (even against U.S. residents) without fear of adverse consequences.
Third, Trump is lying about the evidence and the senators know it. Allowing him to wish away facts is a terrible precedent to set when it comes to a president whose relationship with both evidence and reality is slight. They are telling the White House that, in the future, they’ll buy any cock-and-bull story the administration dreams up.
Once more, Republicans are demonstrating an astonishing lack of integrity and courage. In 2020, those on the ballot should have to account for themselves if they let Trump get away with this.