By Nicole Gaouette, Manu Raju and Veronica Stracqualursi, CNN
A leading Republican senator said Thursday that he believes Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was murdered and that “there is no question the Saudis did this.”
Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker told CNN that the “intel points directly” to Saudi Arabia for the disappearance of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi and said the Saudis need to “produce” the 59-year-old father of four to dispel concerns.
Corker’s comments highlight a growing tension between Congress, which is calling for action on Khashoggi, and the White House, where President Donald Trump has indicated he’s aware of Saudi responsibility but signaled that he’s unwilling to take punitive steps, particularly ending arms sales to the kingdom because of the US jobs they generate.
The prominent Saudi journalist and critic of the regime has been missing for more than a week after going to the Saudi consulate general in Istanbul to obtain wedding papers.
Turkish officials believe Khashoggi was killed inside the consulate, which Saudis deny but have not been able to provide proof he left the consulate safely.
US intelligence intercepts indicating Saudi Arabian officials discussed a plan to lure Kashoggi back to the kingdom will likely further drive the standoff between lawmakers and the President.
‘A sense of arrogance’
Lawmakers Wednesday triggered an investigation that could pave the way for sanctions against Saudi Arabia. Senators have tried to limit arms sales to Saudi Arabia in the past because of the civilian deaths in Yemen. The idea is gaining renewed traction.
Corker said there has been a declining relationship between Saudi Arabia and Congress, and described a “sense of arrogance” in the way the kingdom deals with lawmakers. The Tennessee Republican, who has been a vocal critic of Trump’s, would not say if he has confidence in the President’s handling of the affair yet.
Trump has indicated that Saudi Arabia is likely behind Khashoggi’s disappearance, but signaled Wednesday that he is reluctant to take action, particularly on the issue of arms sales.
“That would be hurting us,” Trump told Fox News when asked about the option of blocking the sale of weapons Saudi Arabia is largely using to wage a war in Yemen that has come under harsh criticism.
“We have jobs,” Trump said on Fox News. “We have a lot of things happening in this country. We have a country that’s doing probably better economically than it’s ever done before. Part of that is what we are doing with our defense systems and everybody is wanting them, and frankly, I think that would be a very, very tough pill to swallow for our country.”
The US signed a nearly $110 billion defense deal with Saudi Arabia in May 2017, when Trump made Saudi Arabia a stop on his first foreign trip as President. The stop was seen, in part, as an endorsement of the strong relationship between Trump, his son in law and senior adviser and the de facto Saudi ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is known as MBS.
Bruce Riedel, director of the Brookings Intelligence Project, notes that cutting off arms sales to Saudi Arabia would be “the best way to hurt MBS where it really matters to him — it would mean he would have to stop the war in Yemen.” Riedel notes that lawmakers have “tried in the Senate and they’ve always fallen four or five [votes] short.”
It’s possible to cut off sales, Riedel said, “but it would mean getting Republicans on board.” Corker, speaking to reporters Wednesday, indicated it was a strong possibility. Asked if he thought arms sales to Saudi Arabia were at risk, Corker replied, “oh definitely.”
Trump acknowledged Wednesday in a phone interview with Fox News that “it’s looking a little bit like” the Saudi government is behind the disappearance of Khashoggi, a former Saudi royal insider who became a critic of the Saudi regime.
The President also said that he wants to wait until more information is known about Khashoggi’s disappearance before he takes action and that he’s reluctant to block arms sales to the Saudis, one possible response.
“I’d have to find out what happened and we are looking and so are other people. I do hate to commit to what recourse we’d take. It’s just too early,” he said, adding that blocking arms sales to Saudi Arabia “would be hurting us.”
CNN and The Washington Post have reported that the US has intercepts of Saudi officials discussing a plan to lure Khashoggi back to Saudi Arabia and detain him.
Asked about the reports Thursday in another Fox News phone interview, Trump said US has investigators “over there” and is working with Turkey on the matter.
“We’ll probably know in the very short future,” Trump said on “Fox and Friends.” “We have incredible people and incredible talent working on it. We don’t like it. I don’t like it. No good.”
A Turkish diplomatic official denied that the US has sent investigators to Turkey to look into Khashoggi case, saying the reports are “not true.”
Asked about the President’s comments that the US has investigators on the ground, the FBI would not confirm and would not comment.
CNN has reported that there is no indication as yet that the FBI is involved in Khashoggi investigation, but Vice President Mike Pence has said the US stands ready to assist.
‘Frank’ phone calls
Prince bin Salman reached out to the White House earlier this week to speak with Kushner after it became clear he and the royal court were getting blamed for Khashoggi’s disappearance, according to a person familiar with the call.
While bin Salman reached out specifically to Kushner, his established White House interlocutor, to deny the accusations, national security adviser John Bolton also joined the call, and later, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had his own conversation with the crown prince.
The person described the calls as frank.