Mitch McConnell breaks with Donald Trump, urges ‘response’ to Saudis
Breaking with President Trump, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Tuesday he accepted U.S. intelligence findings on Saudi Arabia’s role in the killing of dissident U.S.-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi and that Congress should weigh in on the future of U.S.-Saudi relations and American support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen.
The White House has dispatched two Cabinet heavyweights Defense Secretary James N. Mattis and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to the Hill for closed-door briefings Wednesday, but declined to send CIA chief Gina Haspel amid reports U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded Khashoggi’s killing was orchestrated at the highest levels in Riyadh and that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, a close ally of the White House, must have known of last month’s operation.
“No one believes we should completely and totally fracture our relationship with the Saudis,” Mr. McConnell, Kentucky Republican, told reporters Tuesday. “But, yes, some kind of response is going to be appropriate, and we’re going to continue to talk about that.”
The timing of Senate debate on Saudi Arabia is not firm, but could come as early as Wednesday.
Since the killing, several senators from both parties have pushed Congress to censure the crown prince for his alleged role, while criticizing Mr. Trump for not doing more to hold the kingdom accountable.
Mr. Trump has said he is not ready to accept the U.S. intelligence conclusions about the Khashoggi killing, and he and his aides have argued that Saudi Arabia’s strategic value as a global oil supplier, as a check on Iran in the region, and as a purchaser of U.S.-made military hardware was too important to risk.
Mr. McConnell took a different tack on Tuesday, telling reporters at the Capitol that he accepted a CIA assessment that Saudi officials at the highest levels were involved.
“What obviously happened is basically certified by the CIA, [and] is completely abhorrent to everything the United States holds dear and stands for in the world,” Mr. McConnell said.
Despite Mr. Trump’s strong defense of the Saudi relationship, the White House let it be known that the president had no plans to meet with the crown prince later this week when the two leaders are in Buenos Aires for the Group of 20 summit.
Both the Obama and Trump administrations have provided logistical and intelligence support for the Saudi-led alliance fighting in Yemen, a mission said to be a personal project of the crown prince. The Saudis are backing Yemen’s internationally recognized government against Iran-backed Houthi rebels, in a brutal civil war notable for the high number of civilian casualties and the collapse of health and social services in the region’s poorest country.
Longtime critics of the Yemen war say the Pentagon support for a Saudi-led coalition makes the U.S. complicit in what the United Nations and private human rights groups call the world’s biggest ongoing humanitarian crisis, one that has killed more than 50,000 people and left at least 8 million at risk of starvation. Saudi Arabia’s King Salman last week said his country supports a political solution to end the war.
While Mr. McConnell did not specify what action Congress may take, some senators have suggested curbing arms sales or levying additional sanctions.
Earlier this week, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker, Tennessee Republican, called for a vote to cut U.S. assistance for the Saudi-led campaign in Yemen. An effort in March spearheaded by Vermont independent Sen. Bernard Sanders, to force the administration to stop funding Riyadh lost on a 55-44 vote.
But several senators who voted to table that resolution now say the Khashoggi’s slaying has changed their minds, including Mr. Corker and New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s ranking Democrat.
“Things changed,” Sen. Joe Manchin III, a West Virginia Democrat who opposed Mr. Sanders’ resolution in March, told The Associated Press. “The whole thing with Khashoggi is very much concerning. It’s not who we are as a country. It’s not who we should have as allies and not condemn that.”