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.”
Gen. Joseph Votel, who heads U.S. Central Command, told reporters traveling with him in the Middle East that America’s political leaders were addressing the situation surrounding Khashoggi’s death.
“We haven’t changed anything with respect to our ongoing military relationship with Saudi Arabia. They have been a good partner for us for a long period,” Votel said. The kingdom is an important counterterrorism partner for the Pentagon and a major purchaser of U.S. arms.
“From my perspective, we are continuing to do the things that we have normally been doing in our military-to-military relationship with them; we will until we get some instructions to do something different,” he said. “And I’ve been told nothing, so we’ll continue to do what we’re supposed to do.”
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, urging the United States to sever relations with Mohammed and calling for his replacement.
Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) called Saudi Arabia’s shifting explanations about the incident “a mess.”
“You don’t bring a bone saw to an accidental fistfight,” he said on “State of the Union,” referring to reports that Khashoggi was dismembered with a bone saw. “So, the Saudis have said a whole bunch of crap that’s not right, accurate or true.”
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 that the crown prince was involved, arguing that it is “very surprising” that lawmakers who are “6,000 miles away” could make such determinations about what happened.
“There is the presumption of innocence until proven guilty,” Jubeir said, deploying an argument that Trump himself made in a recent interview with the Associated Press.
Rep. Adam B. Schiff (Calif.), the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, called the Khashoggi killing “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 on ABC News’s “This Week.” “This really ought to be something that causes us to do a reexamination of our relationship with Saudi Arabia.”
Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.), a member of the House Intelligence Committee, said that despite the Saudi government’s denials, its intentions were clear.
“Obviously, there was an intent, I believe, to kill him,” King said of Khashoggi. He said the United States should take some retaliatory steps, such as delaying arms sales, but also warned that the United States “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 over Khashoggi’s killing 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. The figure is in dispute, and Trump has been criticized for inflating both the monetary value of the deal and the number of jobs it supports.
“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,” the senator added.
Paul has been one of the most critical voices in Congress on Saudi policy, pointing out that the kingdom has financially supported and offered haven to extremists, and arguing that its air campaign in Yemen’s civil war “actually increases our national risk.”
He said he reckoned that if Congress had a vote in the next couple of weeks to block arms sales to Saudi Arabia, “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 they are announced, leading Paul to muse Sunday that “the arms sales will go on. I think they will avoid announcing the arms sales to prevent us from blocking them.”
Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) has blocked the transfer of precision-guided munitions to Saudi Arabia over concerns that they might be used against civilians in Yemen — a reason that 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 could not 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 U.S. servicing and support.
“The Saudis need us much more than we need them,” he said, figuring that the Saudi air force “can’t last more than a couple of months” without U.S. backing.
Missy Ryan in Qatar contributed to this report.