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Senators call on Trump to impose sanctions in Saudi journalist’s disappearance

Demonstrators outside the Saudi Arabian Embassy in Washington on Wednesday. (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)

The Senate’s top foreign policy lawmakers asked President Trump on Wednesday to impose sanctions against anyone found responsible for the disappearance of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, even if that includes the leaders of Saudi Arabia.

In a letter to Trump, the lawmakers triggered the 2016 Global Magnitsky Act, which gives the president 120 days to decide whether to impose sanctions on any foreign person he determines sponsored or was involved in the disappearance of Khashoggi, an outspoken critic of the Saudi government and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

“We request that you make a determination on the imposition of sanctions pursuant to the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act with respect to any foreign person responsible for such a violation related to Mr. Khashoggi,” Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and the panel’s ranking Democrat, Sen. Robert Menendez (N.J.), wrote in their letter. “Our expectation is that in making your determination you will consider any relevant information, including with respect to the highest ranking officials in the Government of Saudi Arabia.”

Supporters of Washington Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi, who disappeared Oct. 2 at a Saudi consulate, urged the federal government to investigate on Oct. 10. (Video: Joyce Koh/The Washington Post, Photo: Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

Under the terms of the Global Magnitsky Act, Corker and Menendez can force the White House to weigh in on sanctions against Saudi officials. Doing so challenges Trump, who has developed close ties to Saudi Arabia, heralding arms sales and promising continued support of the kingdom’s military campaign in Yemen.

On Wednesday, Trump said that Khashoggi’s disappearance was “a bad situation” that “we’re going to get to the bottom of.” According to White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, several senior members of the Trump administration had placed calls to their Saudi counterparts asking for more details and transparency.

Corker has seen intelligence that suggested Saudi Arabia was plotting to at least apprehend Khashoggi and determined it to be persuasive if not conclusive, according to an aide familiar with Corker’s thinking.

Before announcing their plan, Corker and Menendez enlisted the support of Sens. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) and Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), who lead the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on state and foreign operations, and the other members of the Foreign Relations Committee except for Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.).

“It would be a bipartisan tsunami if this is proven to be true,” Graham, who is close to Trump, said of the allegations of Saudi involvement in Khashoggi’s disappearance. He predicted that proof of nefarious activity on the part of the Saudis “would be a complete game-changer.”

Saudis are said to have lain in wait for Jamal Khashoggi

The Khashoggi episode comes as lawmakers are growing increasingly critical of the Saudi regime, primarily over its handling of the war in Yemen, where critics allege a Saudi-led military coalition has repeatedly struck civilian targets and allowed the world’s worst humanitarian crisis to metastasize. Lawmakers were particularly incensed after a Saudi strike on Aug. 9 killed more than 40 children on an end-of-summer excursion.

Congressional critics of the Yemen campaign have never mounted enough support in Congress to curtail arms sales to Saudi Arabia, though Corker temporarily blocked them last year and Menendez continues to keep a planned sale of precision-guided munitions on hold.

Mohammed was appointed to his current position by his father, King Salman, shortly after Trump visited the kingdom last year and has been praised since for instituting social reforms. He has also been widely criticized for cracking down on anyone who challenges him, including women’s rights activists or even other members of the royal family.

The Turkish government alleges that Khashoggi was apprehended and killed in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul by a special team of agents.

“Reformers don’t kill their political opponents,” Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said to reporters Wednesday. “It’s despicable, and the whole world is watching.”

Relying on the Global Magnitsky Act allows Congress to respond to Khashoggi’s disappearance without needing to pass legislation through a gridlocked Congress, where measures seeking to impose new sanctions on the world’s largest oil exporter, the United States’ biggest arms customer and a longtime regional ally might encounter resistance. Such a bill would also languish before the House, where members are not expected to return to Washington until after the midterm elections.

The Global Magnitsky Act, passed in 2016, allows the United States to impose sanctions on individuals responsible for human rights abuses worldwide. It is based on a 2012 law focused solely on Russia and named after Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who died in prison after uncovering a massive tax-fraud scheme. It is the same law that Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya sought to lobby against in a June 2016 meeting in Trump Tower with then-Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, as well as Trump’s son Donald Trump Jr. and Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner.

Mike DeBonis, Erica Werner and Missy Ryan contributed to this report.

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