President Trump and top Cabinet officials have completely obscured and slow-rolled their own intelligence community’s conclusion about the Saudis' killing of Washington Post Global Opinions columnist Jamal Khashoggi. On Thursday, every single senator in attendance rebuked them.
Just moments after the Senate passed a resolution calling for an end to U.S. involvement on the Saudi side of the war in Yemen, the GOP-run Senate voted unanimously for Republican Sen. Bob Corker’s resolution officially blaming Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for Khashoggi’s death.
The resolution by Corker (Tenn.) says, among other things: “The Senate … believes Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is responsible for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi.”
That’s also what the CIA has concluded, but it’s a conclusion that Trump, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and even Defense Secretary Jim Mattis have taken great pains to undermine. A couple of weeks back, the latter two briefed senators, with Pompeo saying there was no “direct reporting” of Mohammed’s culpability and Mattis saying there was no “smoking gun.” Those statements may be technically true, but they ignore the fact that CIA assessments aren’t legal documents but did assess Mohammed’s responsibility for Khashoggi’s death with “high confidence.” Pompeo and Mattis set an impossible standard for holding the crown prince responsible.
CIA Director Gina Haspel conspicuously wasn’t furnished at that briefing, but eventually senators did get one with her, as well. They came out of that meeting assured of Mohammed’s involvement. They even went so far as to suggest Pompeo and Mattis had deliberately misled them.
“If they were in a Democratic administration,” Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) said of Pompeo and Mattis, “I would be all over them for being in the pocket of Saudi Arabia.”
Corker said that if Mohammed were on trial, he would be convicted within “30 minutes.” The senator also said the difference between Haspel’s briefing and the one provided by Pompeo and Mattis was akin to the “difference between darkness and sunshine.”
These were Republican senators, mind you.
Trump himself has set the tone as far as obscuring and questioning Mohammed’s actual role. While previously promising accountability for whoever was responsible for Khashoggi’s death, Trump eventually said Saudi Arabia was just too important an ally and threw his hands up in the air.
“Our intelligence agencies continue to assess all information, but it could very well be that the Crown Prince had knowledge of this tragic event — maybe he did, and maybe he didn’t!” Trump said in a statement. “That being said, we may never know all of the facts surrounding the murder of Mr. Jamal Khashoggi. In any case, our relationship is with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.”
Thursday’s resolution is the Senate saying, with a unified voice, that’s simply not good enough. It’s saying that the U.S. government needs to be on the record with moral clarity — moral clarity that Trump and company simply haven’t provided. It would be one thing for Trump and Pompeo to say that Mohammed did it but that it’s not worth retaliation; they’ve gone further by covering up the amount of certainty that exists about his role.
The ball is in the House’s court. We pretty much know it won’t pass the resolution calling for pulling out of Yemen, but it could join in rebuking the Trump administration on the crown prince. If it does so, the bill would go to Trump’s desk, where he would have to decide whether to keep pretending that the intelligence doesn’t say what it says — and potentially risk more blowback from Congress, including perhaps sanctions.
Ultimately, this could also just be a momentary, symbolic rebuke — the kind that passes just as quickly as it comes along. Perhaps senators will think they’ve done enough now, and they can move on.
But to be clear, they all just shined a spotlight on the Trump-led coverup of Khashoggi’s killing, and they did it with one voice. That’s pretty remarkable on an issue of such import and involving such an important ally.