By Michael Bowman
U.S. senators of both parties on Monday blasted the Trump administration’s response to the disappearance of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at Saudi Arabia’s consulate in Turkey last October, accusing the administration of defying a law requiring it to investigate and identify those responsible for the dissident Saudi reporter’s death.
“It’s outrageous, it’s insulting, and it’s nothing more than a sham,” the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Bob Menendez of New Jersey, told reporters.
Menendez spoke after the committee received a classified briefing from State Department and Treasury officials on the Khashoggi case. Last year, lawmakers triggered the Global Magnitsky Act, which gave the White House 120 days to identify those responsible for the journalist’s killing, a deadline that expired last month.
Persistent news reports have said the CIA concluded that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered the execution of Khashoggi, a Washington Post reporter who wrote critically about the Saudi kingdom. No intelligence officials were present for Monday’s closed-door briefing, causing multiple senators’ tempers to flare.
“It was a complete waste of time,” South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham said. “I knew more [about the Khashoggi case] than they did.”
Graham said he left the briefing “less satisfied” about the White House’s response to the journalist’s death, a sentiment Democrats echoed.
“They [the administration] sent up witnesses who say they can’t comment [on the investigation],” Virginia Democrat Tim Kaine told VOA. “They have no information about whether the president will ever reach the determination required by law about MBS [Mohammed bin Salman], about whether the president will ever comply with the law.”
Kaine added, “The determination about MBS, they [briefers] say, is for the president to make. They’ve been instructed that it’s not theirs to make, and they have no information about whether the president will ever do that.”
Administration officials “don’t want us to have a conversation about the intelligence,” Connecticut Democrat Chris Murphy said. “I don’t think you could tell who was a Democrat and a Republican on that panel. There were equal amounts of frustration with the briefing.”
Florida Republican Marco Rubio noted that the administration has identified and sanctioned 17 Saudis believed to have been directly involved in Khashoggi’s killing.
“But who told them to do it?” Rubio asked. “I don’t believe you could do that without him [Prince bin Salman] knowing about it and approving it. That isn’t exactly a decentralized government.”
Trump has said responsibility for Khashoggi’s death is an open question. He also has affirmed the crown prince’s denials of involvement. The president’s statements, according to some lawmakers, explain the administration’s foot-dragging in complying with the Global Magnitsky Act and addressing Salman’s culpability.
“This was a political decision. This has nothing to do with the facts. It’s a political decision by the president, and that becomes clearer and clearer and clearer,” Murphy said.
For its part, the administration has been noncommittal about its intentions regarding the Global Magnitsky Act in relation to the Khashoggi case.
“We will continue to consult with the Congress and work to hold accountable those who are responsible for Jamal Khashoggi’s killing,” Deputy State Department Spokesman Robert Palladino told reporters last month.
“This is an unacceptable murder. Make no mistake about it,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a recent interview with CBS. “We also know that we have an important relationship with the kingdom of Saudi Arabia and we are determined to make that a successful relationship.”
Pompeo added, “[W]e’ve made clear as the facts are developed, as we learn more, we will hold everyone responsible for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi accountable.”
State Department correspondent Cindy Saine contributed to this report.