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US senators say Saudi crown prince is “complicit” in Khashoggi murder

Lawmakers from both parties say Riyadh’s de facto ruler is responsible for the journalist’s death.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) speaks to reporters on December 4, 2018 about what he learned in a briefing by CIA Director Gina Haspel about Jamal Khashoggi’s murder.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) speaks to reporters on December 4, 2018, about what he learned in a briefing by CIA Director Gina Haspel about Jamal Khashoggi’s murder. Also, I am one of the reporters in this picture.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

If Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman were in front of a jury, “he’d be convicted [for murder] in 30 minutes.”

That’s what Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN), the outgoing chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told reporters after attending a one-hour meeting with CIA Director Gina Haspel on Tuesday, where she briefed a handful of senators on intelligence relating to the murder of Saudi journalist and US resident Jamal Khashoggi on October 2.

It’s a powerful statement and the latest confirmation that the US has strong evidence linking the crown prince, more commonly known as MBS, to Khashoggi’s death.

Corker wasn’t alone. Minutes earlier, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), an ally of President Donald Trump and formerly a key proponent of the Washington-Riyadh relationship, told reporters that the crown prince is “complicit” in the journalist’s killing. Graham also said he wouldn’t support arms sales to the kingdom as long as MBS remains in charge.

And Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ), once a key backer of Saudi Arabia, told reporters he heard nothing in the Haspel meeting to change his assessment of MBS’s culpability.

Their reactions directly contradict statements by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis last week that there was no “smoking gun” intelligence directly implicating the crown prince, who is the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia. Graham, however, said there was a “smoking saw,” alluding to the bone saw top Saudi officials used to dismember Khashoggi after killing him.

The senators’ comments add to mounting pressure to punish MBS specifically and Saudi Arabia more broadly for the journalist’s death.

Khashoggi was a prominent writer for the Washington Post who disappeared inside Saudi Arabia’s consulate in Istanbul two months ago. It led to a worldwide uproar, with condemnations befalling MBS and calls for the US and others to punish the kingdom.

After much international outcry, Trump placed sanctions on 17 Saudis involved in Khashoggi’s murder, but none of them were MBS, leading to widespread criticism that the US didn’t do enough. The question now is what senators — or Trump — will do. From the looks of things, not much.

Don’t expect any real action against Saudi Arabia for now

There’s a Senate bill to stop all US involvement in the Saudi-led war in Yemen up for a vote next week, but neither Corker nor Graham would commit to voting for it.

It’s unclear it would pass the House in this Congress, or if Trump would sign the legislation into law if it reached his desk, anyway.

Meanwhile, the president has continued to emphasize the importance of retaining strong ties with Saudi Arabia since Khashoggi’s murder. On November 20, for example, he released an exclamation-point ridden statement in which he praised the kingdom’s friendship and cast doubt on MBS’s role in the writer’s demise.

In the future, it’s possible that Congress may pass more targeted legislation to reprimand MBS, or halt arms sales to the kingdom, although neither of those options currently seems palatable to Trump.

For now, then, any effort to severely push back on Riyadh will likely either stall or fail. In that case, MBS may have literally gotten away with murder.