Leading U.S. senators said on Tuesday they were more certain than ever that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was responsible for the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi after receiving a CIA briefing on the matter.
“You have to be willfully blind not to come to the conclusion that this was orchestrated and organized by people under the command of MbS,” Republican Senator Lindsey Graham told reporters, referring to the crown prince by his initials.
In his bid to pressure the Trump administration to condemn the crown prince, Graham said there may not be a “smoking gun,” but that there was a “smoking saw,” a reference to a bone saw that investigators said was used to cut up Khashoggi’s body.
Making some of their strongest accusations so far, both Republicans and Democrats said they still want to pass legislation to send a message to Saudi Arabia that the United States condemns the death of Khashoggi. And they urged President Donald Trump himself to strongly condemn the killing after he stood by the crown prince.
“If the crown prince went in front of a jury, he’d be convicted in 30 minutes,” said Senator Bob Corker, the Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Asked if he would be convicted of murder, Corker replied “Yes.”
The senators spoke to reporters as they left a closed-door briefing for some Senate committee leaders and Senate leaders by Central Intelligence Agency Director Gina Haspel.
“The views that I had before have only solidified,” said Senator Bob Menendez, the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee.
Last week, 14 of Trump’s fellow Republicans, who hold a slim majority in the Senate and rarely break from the president, defied his wishes and voted with Democrats to advance a measure that would end U.S. support for the Saudi-led war effort in Yemen.
The unusual vote came shortly after a briefing by Trump’s Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, who urged lawmakers not to do anything to undermine the U.S.-Saudi relationship.
Haspel’s absence from that briefing angered senators.
Corker shook his head no, when asked if he thought Haspel’s briefing had changed any minds.
Khashoggi, a U.S. resident who wrote for the Washington Post, was killed inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October.
Senators made clear on Tuesday there are still deep divides between the two parties on how to proceed.
Corker said it would be “difficult” to come up with legislation that could pass the Senate. He said he was working with colleagues on how to amend the resolution, and he had not had suggestions from the Trump administration on how it might prefer to proceed.
Many Democrats want a “straight up or down vote” on the resolution to end all U.S. support for the Saudi coalition in Yemen, without amendments. But Trump, and some of his fellow Republicans, has argued that Washington should not take action that would risk its relationship with Riyadh, which is viewed as an important counterweight to Iran in the Middle East.
Republican Senator Richard Shelby underscored that point in his comments after the meeting with Haspel.
“Somebody should be punished,” he said. “Now the question is how do you separate the Saudi crown prince and his group from the nation itself?”
(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle; additional reporting by David Alexander; editing by Mary Milliken and Jonathan Oatis)