White House Digs Itself in Deeper on Khashoggi

CIA briefing only hardens senators’ view that Mohammed bin Salman was behind the journalist’s killing.

U.S. Sen. Bob Corker (R) speaks to press after a closed-door briefing by CIA Director Gina Haspel on the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Washington on Dec. 4. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)
U.S. Sen. Bob Corker (R) speaks to press after a closed-door briefing by CIA Director Gina Haspel on the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Washington on Dec. 4. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

The more the Trump administration tries to put the issue of Jamal Khashoggi behind it, the more its efforts appear to backfire, keeping the journalist’s murder front and center and hardening a bipartisan U.S. Senate demand for action against Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

On Tuesday, bowing to demands from Republicans such as Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, the administration sent in CIA Director Gina Haspel to brief a select group of senators from key committees on the agency’s findings about the Khashoggi killing. In contrast to statements from President Donald Trump—who has said “we may never know” if the crown prince was culpable—several senators came out of the briefing saying they were more convinced than ever.

“There’s not a smoking gun, there’s a smoking saw,” Graham told reporters, apparently referring to the bone saw that the Khashoggi assassins brought along when they entrapped, killed, and dismembered him in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2.

He added: “You have to be willfully blind not to come to the conclusion that this was orchestrated and organized by people under the command of [Mohammed bin Salman] and that he was intricately involved in the demise of Mr. Khashoggi.”

Sen. Bob Corker, the Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said he now has “zero question” in his mind “that the crown prince directed the murder.” Other Republicans who last week had opposed a resolution directing the president to halt U.S. support of the Saudi war in Yemen now suggested they might change their position after hearing what Haspel had to say in the classified briefing.

Republican Sen. Richard Shelby said he wouldn’t rule out supporting the resolution this time when it comes up for a full vote. “All evidence points to that all this leads back to the crown prince,” Shelby said.

Thus, every time the White House tries to put the matter to rest, it only appears to inflame the issue, which is also fueling support for a push to end U.S. involvement in the war in Yemen.

Last week, the administration sent Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary James Mattis to brief the Senate, but Graham and other senators expressed outrage that they were not hearing directly from Haspel, as the CIA’s assessment had been liberally leaked to the media.

Pompeo and Mattis are now expected to give a briefing to the House on Yemen and Saudi Arabia on Dec. 13, ahead of a Democratic takeover of the House in January following the party’s gains in the midterm elections.

But the White House’s decision to make Haspel available—though only to a small group of recalcitrant senators—has backfired again, since it whetted the appetite of more senators for a briefing of their own. Later Tuesday, Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer issued a statement saying the briefing only “reinforced the need for a strong response to the murder of Jamal Khashoggi,” and that Haspel “should brief the full Senate without delay.”

The fierce spat between the White House and Congress has fueled new levels of support for a resolution that would demand an end to U.S. involvement in the war in Yemen—a push that could trigger an unprecedented showdown over the U.S. government’s authority to wage war.

While the Trump administration has repeatedly distinguished Khashoggi’s murder and the war in Yemen as separate issues, lawmakers are tying both together as a showcase of how blank-check support for Saudi Arabia erodes U.S. moral standing.

Lawmakers on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee used a nomination hearing on Tuesday that included Christopher Henzel, a career diplomat tapped to be next ambassador to Yemen, to vent their frustrations about the Trump administration over its relationship with Saudi Arabia. Sen. Todd Young (R) said the administration was “clearly and directly blown off” by Riyadh.

Henzel said the administration condemned the action and it would continue to press for accountability.

Yemen, where a Saudi-led coalition is fighting Iran-backed Houthi rebels, has spiraled into the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. Some 14 million people face starvation, and recent studies estimate 85,000 children under five have starved to death. The Saudi coalition faced criticism for indiscriminately bombing civilian targets and infrastructure, though the Trump administration argues the situation would be much worse without U.S. assistance.

The United States currently provides arms shipments and logistical support including intelligence and targeting assistance to the Saudi-led coalition, which includes the United Arab Emirates and other Arab countries. The assistance began under the Obama administration.

The administration has publicly backed peace talks this month in Sweden, brokered through U.N. Special Envoy Martin Griffiths, to bring about an end to the conflict.

On Nov. 28, the Senate voted 63 to 37 to advance a resolution that calls on the United States to end its military involvement in Yemen. The resolution cites the 1973 War Powers Resolution passed in the wake of the Vietnam war that asserts Congress’s role in authorizing war. Though it was passed nearly 50 years ago, there is still a debate over whether the resolution is constitutional.

The resolution has to overcome several hurdles before it is passed, due to arcane Senate rules. The next vote, a motion to proceed with the final vote, could come as soon as Thursday, Senate aides told Foreign Policy. If it advances beyond that, senators have an opportunity to debate and add amendments to the resolution before a final vote.

Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders, Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy, and Republican Sen. Mike Lee, who championed of the resolution, were not included in the Haspel briefing on Tuesday.

Michael Hirsh is a senior correspondent and deputy news editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @michaelphirsh

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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