The Trump administration’s determination to maintain warm ties with the Saudi royal family came into clear focus this week when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis showed up at the Senate.
Senators wanted to know more about the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi and U.S. support for Saudi airstrikes in Yemen.
Instead, Pompeo and Mattis kept pivoting to the threat posed by Iran.
A smile frozen on his face, Pompeo deflected a reporter’s question on why the CIA director had not appeared to brief senators on intelligence implicating Saudi Arabia’s crown prince in Khashoggi’s killing.
“I was asked to be here, and here I am,” Pompeo replied. When pressed again, he repeated the sentence almost verbatim: “I was asked to be here, and I’m here.”
Pompeo’s unwillingness to provide a smoother, more direct answer crystallized how awkward it has become to maintain a solid U.S.-Saudi relationship as Congress threatens to cut off military funding for the country.
The administration considers Saudi Arabia an important and influential ally needed to push back against Iran, keep oil prices low and support the administration’s still-unveiled peace plan for Israelis and Palestinians.
But the explanations did not sit well with many senators seeking straightforward answers to their concerns about the slaying of the journalist and the crisis in Yemen, which the United Nations has called the world’s worst humanitarian disaster.
One senator summarized the hour with Pompeo and Mattis behind closed doors as “that horrible meeting.”
Both men summarized positions already laid down by President Trump. But their defense of Saudi Arabia’s “strategic importance” to U.S. interests turned a harsh light on them.
The different emphasis they placed on the relationship shielded Mattis from criticism more than Pompeo. In his prepared remarks, the Pentagon chief cited the “twin requirements” of holding Khashoggi’s killers accountable and “the reality of Saudi Arabia as a necessary strategic partner.” In his opening statement, as released by the State Department, Pompeo did not mention Khashoggi, whose killing, he wrote, has intensified “Capitol Hill caterwauling and media pile-on.”
Richard Fontaine, a former U.S. official and adviser to late Republican senator John McCain, said Mattis had articulated a more nuanced position than Pompeo.
Mattis “has made clear which end he comes down on, but it seems to me he’s also made clear that he’s for more tough love with the Saudis,” Fontaine said, “whereas Pompeo’s message is just love.”
The Khashoggi case has prompted some of the toughest criticism Pompeo has received since stepping down as CIA director to become secretary of state in April. When Trump suddenly dispatched him to Riyadh in October two weeks after Khashoggi was killed in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, cameras caught him smiling broadly while shaking hands with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
Nancy McEldowney, a former head of the State Department’s Foreign Service Institute that trains diplomats, compared Pompeo to a man walking behind an elephant with a shovel to clean up the mess.
“He had no answer to give,” she said. “He couldn’t or wouldn’t speak the truth.”
The tension between the Senate and the White House will return to Capitol Hill in coming days after the Senate voted 63 to 37 to advance a resolution terminating U.S. military support for the war in Yemen. Trump opposes the measure, and many legislative hurdles lie ahead, but it represents a direct challenge to the White House’s ambition to keep doing business as usual with the Saudis.
The administration is unlikely to punish Mohammed personally with sanctions, as some lawmakers have proposed.
“There’s no White House green light to take any sanctions against the crown prince himself,” said Bruce Riedel, a Middle East analyst with the Brookings Institution. “So Pompeo is stuck. They’re all stuck. We’re now engaged in a coverup of a coverup.”
Riedel said the war in Yemen hurts Saudi Arabia more than it does Iran, the kingdom’s primary rival in the region. Iran’s cost is minimal compared with the $50 billion Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates spend each year on airstrikes against Iranian-backed Houthi rebels.
Thousands of Yemenis, including many civilians, have died in the war. Yemen is in the midst of a cholera epidemic, and the United Nations has said the country is on the verge of famine.
Trump has cited arms sales to the Saudis as one reason to maintain close ties. The administration received a boost to the president’s claim of major U.S. profits from arms sales to Saudi Arabia. Last week, after a nearly two-month delay, Saudi Arabia signed acceptance documents for a $15 billion purchase of a missile defense system, the largest component of what Trump has claimed were $110 billion worth of sales negotiated during his 2017 visit to Riyadh. The deal brings the total of deals actually signed under the current administration to about $30 billion, although most were initiated under former president Barack Obama.
The newest agreement for 44 Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) launchers, missiles and related equipment follows earlier sales of anti-ballistic missiles, helicopters, tanks, ships, weapons and training.
Nicholas Burns, a former U.S. diplomat, said the administration should tell Mohammed, the country’s de facto ruler, to seek a cease-fire with Iran and the Houthi rebels, perhaps offering Pompeo as a broker.
Mohammed “is causing a lot of trouble for the U.S.,” Burns said, referring to Khashoggi, Yemen and Qatar, which Saudi Arabia is leading an embargo against and where it is threatening to dig a canal that would turn the peninsula nation into an island. “Trump should lean on him to stop the damage he is doing to us,” he said.
Karen DeYoung and Karoun Demirjian contributed to this article.