US lawmakers, including leading Republican senators, blasted as far-fetched Saudi Arabia’s explanation of the murder of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul on 2 October.
Hours after the Saudi prosecutor-general finally admitted, Saturday, that the late opposition journalist was killed “in a fist fight” with Saudi officers who travelled to Istanbul, allegedly to convince him to return home, several key Republican and Democrat lawmakers said they were not convinced that the chain of command stopped there, insisting that if Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman (known in the US as MBS) was behind the killing, the US must impose sanctions.
The comments set up a possible clash between Congress and President Donald Trump hardly two weeks before Congressional elections 6 November.
Trump had also cast doubt on the Saudi version of events but, so far, stood behind the crown prince and emphasised economic ties between the two countries.
“If he directed it, we need to put the same types of sanctions in place that we’ve done with other people who’ve done the same thing,” Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said on CNN’s “State of the Union” Sunday.
“Collectively, we’ve got to deal with this in an appropriate way.’’
“They’ve lost all credibility as it relates to what has happened. I don’t think anyone believes that story,” Corker added.
Trump, after initially calling the Saudi moves a “good first step” and saying “we’re getting close to solving a very big problem,” said later Saturday that it’s a concern that Saudi officials haven’t specified where Khashoggi’s body is.
In an interview with The Washington Post, Trump said there have been “lies,” and “deception,” but that the prince is a “strong person, he has very good control”.
Trump said he didn’t know if the Saudi crown prince, next in line to the Saudi throne, knew about the operation beforehand.
“Nobody has told me he’s responsible. Nobody has told me he’s not responsible. We haven’t reached that point... I would love if he wasn’t responsible,”
Trump told the Post, where Khashoggi worked as a contributing opinion writer.
“There is a possibility he found out about it afterward. It could be something in the building went badly awry,” Trump said.
Trump was among the first world leaders to circulate the view that “rogue killers” might have been behind Khashoggi’s death, acting without approval from MBS or top officials.
Besides arresting 18 Saudi nationals, including the 15-men hit team who went to Istanbul allegedly to convince Khashoggi to return home onboard one of two private jets, Saudi authorities announced the removal of the Deputy Director of Saudi Intelligence General Ahmed Assiri, and a senior media adviser to the Saudi king, Saoud Kahtani.
They were both blamed for the operation, and Saudi officials claimed they did not inform MBS of the truth about what happened until two weeks after the murder of the Saudi journalist.
MBS was among the first Saudi officials to claim in an interview with Bloomberg that Khashoggi left the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul “20 minutes or an hour,” after he was there to claim an official paper that would have allowed him to marry a Turkish woman.
However, Senator Corker pointed blame to MBS. “Do I think he did it? Yes, I think he did it. It is my thinking that MBS was involved, that he directed this and that this person was purposely murdered,” Corker said.
Senator Ben Sasse, a Nebraska Republican, echoed that view. “The Saudis have said a whole bunch of crap that is not accurate or true,” he said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
“You don’t bring a bone saw to an accidental fistfight,” Sasse said, referring to claims by Turkish officials that Khashoggi’s body was dismembered inside the consulate.
Corker said the president’s reluctance to assign blame was an attempt to keep “channels” open with Saudi Arabia, a key regional ally. But, Corker said, “I see the president evolving on this issue in a positive way.”
Corker added that Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman is “very impressive,” but “obviously, if he has gone forward and murdered this journalist, there has to be a price paid for that.”
He said the US and its Western allies will insist on “punishment” that should be taken via a “collective response”.
Corker also clarified comments he made last week criticising the Trump administration for cancelling an intelligence briefing he was due to receive on the situation with Saudi Arabia.
“We are getting the intelligence now,” he said. “The intelligence faucet has been turned back on.”
He said he spoke to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo Saturday afternoon, who said the US has yet to receive alleged audio recordings of the killing from Turkey. “It would be helpful” to have the tapes, Corker said.
Last week, Corker said that the US administration had “clamped down” on intelligence about the case.
Bipartisan members of Congress also took to Sunday morning political shows to say the Saudi story lacks credibility, and that they think the crown prince was likely behind Khashoggi’s death.
“I find it impossible to believe that the crown prince wasn’t involved,” leading Republican Senator Lindsay Graham of South Carolina, a Trump ally, said on Fox’s “Sunday Morning Futures”. “I’m not going to look the other way.”
Trump is banking on the Saudis to buy billions of dollars worth of US weapons, keep oil flowing to global markets after Iranian sanctions hit next month, and to support a long-awaited Middle East peace plan.
But Representative Adam Schiff of California, the top ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said the situation should be “relationship-altering” for the US and Saudi Arabia, even though he expected Trump to ultimately accept Saudi denials that the crown prince was directly involved.
“We ought to suspend military sales, we ought to suspend certain security assistance, and we ought to impose sanctions on any of those that were directly involved in this murder,” Schiff said on ABC’s “This Week.”
“This really ought to be something that causes us to do a re-examination of our relationship with Saudi Arabia,” Schiff added.
Speaking on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois, the chamber’s number two Democrat, said the Saudi ambassador to the US should be formally expelled until a third-party investigation is done. He said the US should call on its allies to do the same.
“Unless the Saudi kingdom understands that civilised countries around the world are going to reject this conduct and make sure that they pay a price for it, they’ll continue doing it,” Durbin said.
Republican Representative Peter King of New York said he wants Trump to “thread the needle” by strongly condemning Khashoggi’s death while recognising Saudi Arabia’s strategic value in the region to the US, including as a “bulwark” against Iran.
“We have to try to balance it,” King said on ABC. “But again, what happened here was savagery, and we can’t go along with their cover story.”
Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir said Sunday on Fox News that there were “discrepancies” with what the Saudi security team that went to the Turkish consulate reported back, and that “we are determined to punish those who are responsible for this murder.”
He also predicted that Saudi-US relations “will weather this”.
Republican Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky said “it’s insulting to anyone who’s analysing this with any kind of intelligent background to think that, ‘Oh, a fistfight led to a dismemberment with a bone saw,’” a reference to news reports that one of the Saudis who went to the consulate brought the instrument.
“It stretches credulity to think the crown prince wasn’t involved in this,” Paul said on “Fox News Sunday.”
*A version of this article appears in print in the 25 October, 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Capitol Hill unconvinced