One of President Trump’s closest congressional confidants suggested Tuesday that lawmakers may not extend federal funding unless a measure to stiffen sanctions Saudi Arabia is included in the deal.
The message comes as congressional Democrats and Republicans alike excoriated Trump’s defense of Saudi denials that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi over the assessment of U.S. intelligence officials. Those comments prompted a backlash from the Democratic and Republican heads of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee as well, who ordered Trump to issue a formal determination of whether Mohammed is responsible for Khashoggi’s death.
“I never thought I’d see the day a White House would moonlight as a public relations firm for the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia,” Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), the Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman, said on Twitter. Shortly after, he and Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), the ranking Democrat on the committee, invoked their authority under the Global Magnitsky Act, through which they can force the president to weigh sanctioning officials implicated in human rights offenses, to deliver a verdict on Mohammed’s responsibility within 120 days.
But the more pressing matter for Congress may be Sen. Lindsey O. Graham’s (R-S.C.) assesment that “it will be hard to get a deal to fund the government without doing something that will send a clear message” to Saudi leadership.
“When it comes to the crown prince, it is not wise to look away,” Graham added in an interview Tuesday, calling Mohammed “a wrecking ball” on the global stage.
Graham is a co-author of pending legislation to impose a blanket ban on arms sales to Saudi Arabia — deals Trump has held up as the reason he believes supporting Saudi Arabia’s crown prince is an essential part of his “America first” strategy. Graham’s warning to the contrary was part of an eruption of vitriol from leading GOP voices on Capitol Hill, many of whom accused Trump of shilling for the Saudis instead of prioritizing the United States’ interests.
“I’m pretty sure this statement is Saudi Arabia First, not America First,” Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) said on Twitter. “We should, at the very least, NOT reward Saudi Arabia with our sophisticated armaments that they in turn use to bomb civilians.”
Paul has long advocated a recalibration of the U.S.-Saudi relationship, primarily out of concern that the United States’ support for the Saudi-led coalition is worsening already-catastrophic conditions for civilians in Yemen’s long-running civil war.
Their cause has picked up steam in the weeks since Khashoggi’s slaying, which shocked Capitol Hill and drove many to openly question why the Saudi relationship was sacrosanct — and why Trump keeps moving closer to the kingdom, despite its documented human rights abuses.
On Tuesday, Trump called Saudi Arabia a “great ally” — angering some members of his party even more.
“ ‘Great allies’ don’t plot the murder of journalists, Mr. President,” Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), who has become increasingly critical of Trump as he nears his retirement from Congress, wrote on Twitter. “ ‘Great allies’ don’t torture their own citizens into a trap, then kill them.”
Lawmakers have long criticized Saudi Arabia’s human rights record as abysmal, but for years, Congress has turned a blind eye, in deference to the U.S.-Saudi security relationship, which U.S. presidents have seen as central to their anti-terrorism strategy in the Middle East. But Trump’s all-encompassing embrace of Saudi Arabia has disquieted some of the GOP’s most influential foreign policy figures, who chafed Tuesday as Trump doubled down on his argument that it was necessary to defer to Saudi leaders in “a very dangerous world.”
“Our foreign policy must be about promoting our national interests,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) wrote on Twitter, arguing that human rights violations drive the sort of unrest that fuels instability and terrorism. “It is in our natl interest to defend human rights.”
“This is an utterly absurd, irresponsible, and repugnant statement from @POTUS,” Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.) noted, also in a Twitter post. “No amount of money justifies the betrayal of our principles and values as Americans.”
Yet lawmakers have struggled to pass, or in some cases even consider, legislation to curtail U.S. support to the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen. Earlier this month, Republican leaders in the House adopted a rare rule change to prevent lawmakers from forcing a vote on a bill to stop U.S. military, intelligence and air support to the Saudi coalition under the War Powers Resolution — by nullifying parts of the War Powers Resolution, specifically for that bill.
The Senate has yet to consider a measure specifically directed at Saudi Arabia since Khashoggi’s killing, though several senators have warned that they will personally intervene to block any future arms sales. Presently, Menendez — who along with Graham co-wrote the bill to raise sanctions on Saudi Arabia and others fomenting unrest in Yemen — is preventing a sale of precision-guided munitions to the Saudis.
Congressional leaders have not weighed in on the likelihood that the sanctions bill will be added to the federal funding extension, due by Dec. 7. It is unlikely that lawmakers will be able to find enough time on the floor to put such a bill to a separate vote, with only weeks left until lawmakers depart Washington.
In the House, Democratic leaders have already promised to take up the issue of arms sales to Saudi Arabia, and the fate of Yemen, as part of their agenda when they assume the majority in the chamber next year. But with the future of legislation uncertain, and a Trump ally set to inherit the gavel on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, some Democrats are looking to the House to lead the charge against Saudi policy — and not just with sanctions bills.
“It’s now 100% clear the Saudis own our President — and the new House Dem majority needs ot get to the bottom of this ASAP,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) wrote on Twitter — promising to push for a vote on ending U.S. support for the Saudi-led campaign in Yemen before the end of the year.