Published 2:57 PM EDT Oct 11, 2018
WASHINGTON – Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker said Thursday he believes Jamal Khashoggi, a missing Saudi Arabian journalist and U.S. resident, has been killed and that the Saudi government is responsible.
“It would appear that he’s been murdered,” said Corker, R-Tenn., adding that he hopes he’s wrong about the journalist’s fate.
Corker said the facts surrounding Khashoggi’s case are still “murky” and it’s possible another country is responsible for his disappearance, which occurred more than a week ago after he entered the Saudi consulate in Turkey.
But, Corker said, “Everything that I’ve seen points to the Saudis … We have no evidence that points anywhere but to them.”
More than a week ago, Khashoggi entered Saudi Arabia’s consulate in Turkey for some routine paperwork. A critic of the Saudi regime living in self-imposed exile in the U.S., Khashoggi has not been seen since.
Turkish officials allege he was killed in the compound; Saudi officials say he left the building unharmed.
Corker and other lawmakers have been reviewing classified intelligence data collected by U.S. officials on the case. No other senator went as far as Corker in casting blame on the Saudis. But many others said they were deeply worried about Khashoggi – and deeply skeptical of the Saudi government’s denials.
“The burden of the proof is now on the Saudis to demonstrate that they were not participants in any way in harming, killing or kidnapping Jamal Khashoggi,” said Sen. Tim Kaine, a Virginia Democrat and member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
If the Saudis can’t prove they were not involved, Kaine said, “I think it will fundamentally change the nature of the relationship” between U.S. and Saudi Arabia, who have long shared a strong alliance.
Kaine and several other Senate Democrats said they would try to block billions of dollars in U.S. arms sales to America’s Middle Eastern ally.
President Donald Trump and his top advisers have cultivated a close relationship with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and Trump has touted the Saudi Arabian government's promise to buy "lots of beautiful military equipment" from the U.S.
On Thursday, Trump said the White House has opened an investigation into Khashoggi’s disappearance but repeated that he does not favor stopping arms sales in retaliation.
“We don’t like it, we don’t like it a little bit,” Trump told reporters. “What happened is a terrible thing, assuming that happened. Maybe we’ll be pleasantly surprised but somehow I doubt it.”
The Executive Branch has authority to make such a sale, but Congress can block it with a vote of disapproval in the House and the Senate.
Sen. Bob Menendez, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, noted that he already has a hold barring the Trump administration from moving forward with an arms sale – a move he made before Khashoggi’s disappearance. The New Jersey lawmaker said the latest developments have only increased support for his blockade.
“At this point, I don’t see that moving forward,” Menendez said of the weapons sales. “We can’t let even an ally believe that they have carte blanche to do anything they want.”
In an op-ed published by The Atlantic, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., said he plans to introduce a measure to “cut all funding, training, advising, and any other coordination to and with the military of Saudi Arabia until the journalist Jamal Khashoggi is returned alive.”
“This oppressive regime must be held accountable for its actions,” he wrote. “The United States has no business supporting it, either directly or indirectly.”
Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., one of the Senate’s most vocal critics of the Saudi regime, said he was looking at other steps Congress could take – including cutting off U.S. funding for the Saudi-led bombing campaign in Yemen. He said he did not believe the Trump administration would be forceful enough in its dealings with Saudi Arabia if its leadership is found responsible for Khashoggi’s disappearance or death.
“It’s going to be left to Congress” to mete out any consequences, Murphy said.
Corker declined to weigh in on the question of arms sales, as did other Republicans. But Corker said even before the Khashoggi incident, the Saudi government’s relations with Congress “were lower than at any point since I’ve been here.”
When he learned of Khashoggi’s disappearance, Corker said he called the Saudi ambassador to the U.S., Prince Khalid bin Salman bin Abdulaz, and asked to see footage of the journalist exiting the consulate.
“He said the video equipment that they have only livestreams, it doesn’t record,” Corker recounted, calling that claim “ridiculous.”
“… I told him that’s just not possible,” Corker said, “that you would have video equipment that doesn’t record at a consulate.”