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Senate at odds with Trump, seeks to punish Saudis over journalist's disappearance

From left, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tenn., and Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., the ranking member, and Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md.,on Capitol Hill in Washington, Monday, April 23, 2018. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

The Senate formally initiated an investigation into the disappearance and possible death of the Saudi-born journalist Jamal Khashoggi, setting into motion a process that puts them at odds with President Donald Trump and may seek to alter the U.S. relationship with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

On Wednesday, a bipartisan group of 22 senators sent a letter to the White House requiring the Trump administration to investigate Mr. Khashoggi's disappearance and consider imposing sanctions on Saudi Arabia for gross human rights abuses. A number of other senators raised the further possibility of blocking U.S. arms sales to the Kingdom and withdrawing military support for ongoing Saudi operations in Yemen.

"If it is found that they murdered a journalist, that will hugely change our relationship," Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tenn., told reporters at the Capitol.

In their letter to President Trump, the senators invoked the 2016 Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act. Under the law, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee can require the president to investigate extrajudicial killings, torture or other gross human rights violations and impose economic sanctions on the perpetrators.

Additionally, Democrats and Republicans like Sens. Chris Murphy of Connecticut and Todd Young of Indiana have been pushing for a floor vote that would cut off U.S. support for the Saudi Arabia-led bombing campaign in Yemen, which has resulted in thousands of civilian casualties.

On Thursday, Murphy again called on Congress and the administration to temporarily suspend its support and participation in Saudi operations in Yemen. He described this as a "first step," and did not rule out further action, including independent, congressionally-mandated sanctions.

The Kingdom's involvement in Yemen has caused a lot of discomfort on Capitol Hill and resulted in the temporary freeze on a U.S.-Saudi weapons deal. During his first visit to Riyadh in May 2017, President Trump and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman announced the $110 billion arms deal, which has yet to be approved by Congress.

If Saudi Arabia is found to be complicit in Khashoggi's death or disappearance, the Senate will certainly block that sale from moving forward, according to Corker. The senator recently appealed to the Trump administration urging them not to press Congress on any Saudi arms sales, "because they will not pass." With the disappearance of the journalist, Corker added, "I can assure you it won't happen for a while."

Congress must approve foreign arms sales and can block a sale with a vote of disapproval. The president can override the vote with a national security waiver.

At the White House, President Donald Trump appeared reluctant to punish the Saudis, telling reporters, "There will be something that has to take place. First I want to find out what happened and we're looking at it."

Trump said it "would not be acceptable to me" if Congress tried to block the arms sale he struck with the crown prince last year. "I would not be in favor of stopping a country from spending $110 billion, which is an all-time record, and letting Russia have that money and letting China have that money," he said. "What good does it do us? There are other things we can do."

The Wednesday letter starts the clock on a 120-countdown for the president to investigate the circumstances surrounding Mr. Khashoggi's disappearance from the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, where he was last seen on security camera footage entering on Oct. 2. He went to consulate with his fiance, a Turkish citizen, to retrieve a marriage license, but never came out.

Khashoggi is a Saudi citizen who took up permanent residence in the United States after losing confidence in his government and becoming a high-profile critic of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, known by his initials MbS. He was also a Washington Post Global Opinion contributor.

According to reports from Turkish state media, Mr. Khashoggi was killed in the consulate by a team of 15 Saudi operatives, likely tortured, dismembered and removed covertly from the premises. Saudi authorities have rejected the allegations and claim Khashoggi departed on Oct. 2. They have not yet provided security camera footage to support the claim.

On Wednesday, The Washington Post reported that U.S. intelligence intercepts implicate MbS in a plot to "lure" Khashoggi back to Saudi Arabia in order to detain him. The State Department has denied the U.S. had any prior knowledge of his disappearance.

"The Saudis, at this point, have the burden of showing proof of life," said Sen. Chris Murphy. Murphy told reporters he has seen U.S. intelligence concerning the incident and concluded, "I've seen nothing to suggest that Jamal Khashoggi is alive."

The Senate is warning of severe consequences if Khashoggi does not turn up. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., warned "there would be hell to pay" if Saudi Arabia is responsible for Khashoggi's death. "If this man was murdered in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, that would cross every line of normality in the international community," he told reporters Wednesday.

Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Col, also drew a clear line between international norms and individuals like the allies of Russian President Vladimir Putin who were sanctioned under the original Magnitsky Act for allegedly killing critics. "I think it's a pretty glaring red line that we're about to see," he said. The investigation will determine "on what side of that line" the Saudi government falls.

Under the Global Magnitsky Act, the Trump administration is expected to investigate all credible leads, wherever they go. The Senate letter demands the president consider "any relevant information, including with respect to the highest ranking officials in the Government of Saudi Arabia." In other words, members of the Saudi royal family could be held accountable, hit with financial sanctions and denied U.S. visas sanctions if they are implicated in the murder or unlawful disappearance of Khashoggi.

Corker said he believes the Trump administration will take its responsibility under the Global Magnitsky Act seriously. The investigation will almost certainly involve multiple U.S. intelligence agencies, the State Department, the Treasury Department as well as foreign partners, resulting in a clear set of facts about Mr. Khashoggi.

"I hope he's alive. And it's possible that some other country was involved," Corker told reporters. "But everything points to Saudi Arabia today."

There are also concerns that President Trump could avoid a confrontation with Saudi Arabia because of his close relationship with the country's leaders. Trump's first foreign trip as president was to Saudi Arabia. He has publicly praised the Kingdom as a critical ally that has spent billions on regional security and counter-terrorism. At the United Nations last month, Trump hailed MbS as a reformer.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., argued there is "huge concern" that Trump will not jeopardize that relationship and condemn the Saudi's alleged role in Khashoggi's disappearance. He warned that U.S. inaction will be interpreted by other world leaders as a sign they can execute critics "with impunity."

Regardless of the impact it may have on U.S.-Saudi relations, Leahy said he wants to hold the perpetrators to account. "Murder is murder and I don't care who may get upset," he stated.

Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., also raised concerns that the president will sacrifice international norms for the sake of his relationship with the Saudis. "We've got to make it clear to anyone who wants to be called an ally of the United States there's a level of conduct that is totally reprehensible," he said. "This is an instance which I think is an outrage and we shouldn't pull punches at this point."

Despite that outrage, the United States has a long history of turning a blind eye to Saudi human rights abuses and other areas of profound disagreement.

The United States and Saudi Arabia have been allies since 1945. "During that time, the Saudis have on many occasions infuriated the White House and the Congress by actions and policies that directly contravene U.S. international and strategic interests and economic policy," said Thomas W. Lippman is an award-winning author and expert in U.S.-Saudi relations.

For example, Saudi Arabia blocked oil exports during the 1973 oil embargo, went to war with Israel on two occasions and later disrupted the Israel-Palestine peace process, secretly acquired nuclear-capable missiles from China, directly opposed the U.S. War on Terror and 2003 invasion of Iraq and never fully answered for the 15 Saudi nationals involved in the September 11, 2001 attacks. Moreover, the State Department reports annually on a litany of human rights abuses committed by the Saudi government.

"Never has the United States diminished or pulled the plug on the relationship as a result of any of those provocations, because it's been too valuable. It certainly has never done so as a result of any individual or group or human rights issue," Lippman continued. "I have no reason to think it is going to do so now."

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