Senators emerged from an unusual closed-door briefing with the CIA director on Tuesday and accused the Saudi crown prince of complicity in the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
In some of their strongest statements to date, lawmakers said evidence presented by the U.S. spy agency overwhelmingly pointed to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s involvement in the assassination.
“There’s not a smoking gun — there’s a smoking saw,” said Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), referring to the bone saw that investigators believe was used to dismember Khashoggi after he was killed Oct. 2 by a team of Saudi agents inside the country’s consulate in Istanbul.
Armed with classified details provided by President Trump’s handpicked CIA director, Gina Haspel, senators shredded the arguments put forward by senior administration officials who had earlier insisted that the evidence of Mohammed’s alleged role was inconclusive.
The gulf that has emerged between Republican lawmakers and the president over how to respond to the journalist’s killing appeared to widen after Tuesday’s briefing, with Graham, one of Trump’s closest Senate allies, announcing that he was no longer willing to work with the crown prince, whom the White House regards as one of its most important allies in the Middle East.
In recent days, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis have said that no single piece of evidence irrefutably links Mohammed to the killing. But the senators, in effect, said that did not matter, because the evidence they heard convinced them beyond the shadow of a doubt.
“If the crown prince went in front of a jury, he would be convicted in 30 minutes,” said Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Haspel, who had declined to appear alongside Mattis and Pompeo at a briefing on U.S.-
Saudi policy for the full Senate last week, was joined by agency personnel and gave what lawmakers described as a compelling and decisive presentation of the evidence that the CIA has analyzed since Khashoggi, a Washington Post contributing columnist, was killed.
“We heard the clearest testimony I’ve heard from intelligence this morning,” Corker said later during a confirmation hearing for Trump administration nominees. “I’ve been here 12 years,” he said. “I’ve never heard, ever, a presentation like was made today.”
Graham declined to say what the CIA officials had said, but in a brief interview with The Post he said, “You can be assured it was thorough and the evidence is overwhelming.”
Graham leveled sharp criticism at Pompeo and Mattis, saying he thought they were “following the lead of the president.” He called them “good soldiers.” But, Graham added, one would “have to be willfully blind not to come to the conclusion” that Mohammed was “intricately involved in the demise of Mr. Khashoggi.”
“It is zero chance, zero, that this happened in such an organized fashion without the crown prince,” Graham said.
Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.) said that “it would defy logic to think” that someone other than Mohammed was responsible, noting that members of the prince’s own royal guard are believed to have been part of the team that killed Khashoggi.
Congressional Republicans and Democrats have hammered Trump for his apparent ambivalence toward the CIA’s findings. “Maybe he did and maybe he didn’t!” Trump said in a statement last month after hearing the agency’s assessment of Mohammed’s alleged role. The president has said that the value of Saudi weapons purchases and the country’s role as a strategic check on Iran are too important to jeopardize.
Haspel has tried to avoid getting in the middle of a policy debate. But her presentation heightened the tension between Trump and members of his party.
“The reason they don’t draw the conclusion that he’s complicit is because the administration doesn’t want to go down that road — not because there’s not evidence to suggest it,” Graham said.
Senators declined to detail the particulars of Haspel’s presentation, but the CIA had previously told congressional and administration officials that its assessment is based on multiple communications intercepts, an audio recording from inside the Saudi Consulate and the agency’s belief that Mohammed, who exercises complete control of his government, would have to know about a plan to kill a prominent critic.
Graham made clear that the crown prince’s culpability had caused a breach in the U.S.-Saudi relationship and said the United States should come down on the government in Riyadh like “a ton of bricks.” He said he could no longer support arms sales to the Saudis as long as Mohammed was in charge.
“Saudi Arabia’s a strategic ally and the relationship is worth saving — but not at all costs,” Graham said.
Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) said that senators had asked Haspel to return later and provide the same briefing to all members of the chamber.
A week from Thursday, House members are supposed to receive a briefing on Yemen and Saudi Arabia similar to the one that the Senate received last week, with Pompeo and Mattis. Thus far, Haspel has not committed to attend.
Last week, the Senate took the historic step of voting to take up a resolution, spearheaded by Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah), to end U.S. support for the Saudi-led coalition fighting Houthi rebels in Yemen. For some of the 14 Republicans who supported the procedural step, the vote was intended as a warning shot to Trump, to inspire him to start openly condemning Mohammed or withholding military support from the Saudis.
Haspel’s briefing may have been designed to placate some of those senators, such as Graham, who last week said he would not support “any key vote” until the CIA director spoke to senators about the agency’s findings. Graham said Tuesday that he was satisfied with Haspel’s briefing and would not be backing the Yemen resolution to its conclusion.
In place of that, he announced that he would be introducing a “sense of the Senate” resolution to specifically condemn Mohammed as responsible for Khashoggi’s killing and that he would not support any future arms sale to Saudi Arabia as long as Mohammed remains in power.
But between the Senate Democrats and the handful of Republicans who say that U.S. participation in the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen is morally objectionable or unconstitutional, supporters of the Yemen resolution have enough support to advance the measure to the stage where lawmakers may propose amendments to it.
Graham and Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), the co-authors of a bill to impose sanctions on Saudi Arabia and curtail almost all weapons transfers to the kingdom, may propose their package of punitive measures as an amendment to the Yemen resolution, as it appears that talks to attach it to a must-pass spending bill have not gained enough momentum.
Speaking to reporters after the Haspel briefing, Menendez, the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, argued that Congress needs to pass “something strong” in addition to the Yemen resolution that would bring “a real set of consequences.”
Corker said he was working with others to come up with a “consensus amendment” to the Yemen resolution that would let the Senate present as strong and as unified a face as possible, to reflect the bipartisan revulsion with Saudi Arabia’s conduct.
“We’ve got a task in front of us: I would like to actually pass something that became law,” Corker said, a sideways reference to the fact that House GOP leaders will probably try to stop any Yemen resolution that emerges from the Senate dead in its tracks before it can be taken up in the House.
“There are some people that would like to speak only to the killing of the journalist. There are other people who want to speak to the Yemen issue at large. Trying to pool that together in a manner that unifies Congress is difficult,” Corker said. “It would be much better if the commander in chief would stand up and say to the world, we don’t condone the ordering, the killing and the dismemberment of journalists.”
Paul Kane, Josh Dawsey and Missy Ryan contributed to this report.