Senators have written to President Donald Trump demanding that his administration “make a determination” about whether the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was responsible for the killing of US-based columnist Jamal Khashoggi.
Senators Bob Corker and Bob Menendez wrote a letter to Mr Trump on Tuesday, asking for an investigation under the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act.
The act requires the president to determine whether a foreign person is responsible for an extrajudicial killing, torture or other gross violation of internationally recognised human rights against an individual exercising freedom of expression.
On Tuesday, the president condemned the killing of Mr Khashoggi inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul as a “horrible crime … that our country does not condone”.
Under the law, the president is now required to determine whether MbS is responsible and report to our committee with a determination and a decision on the imposition of sanctions. Read our letter: pic.twitter.com/G9xFGyw4TH— Senator Bob Corker (@SenBobCorker) November 21, 2018
But he rejected calls by many in Congress, including members of his own party, for a tougher response, and he dismissed reports from US intelligence agencies that the crown prince must have at least known about such an audacious and intricate plot.
“It could very well be that the crown prince had knowledge of this tragic event,” the president said. “Maybe he did and maybe he didn’t!”
It came after weeks of debate over whether the president would or should come down hard on the Saudis and the crown prince in response to the killing of the Saudi columnist for The Washington Post who had criticised the royal family.
The US earlier sanctioned 17 Saudi officials suspected of being responsible for or complicit in the October 2 killing, but members of Congress have called for harsher actions, including cancelling arms sales.
Unprecedented times call for unprecedented measures. @SenBobCorker & I are triggering Magnitsky Act AGAIN to defend human rights & free press. Now Pres. Trump must SPECIFICALLY determine if Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman himself is responsible for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi pic.twitter.com/b1MbAJhA6O— Senator Bob Menendez (@SenatorMenendez) November 20, 2018
Mr Trump said “foolishly cancelling these contracts” worth billions of dollars would only benefit Russia and China, which would be next in line to supply the weapons.
Asked by a reporter if he was saying that human rights are too expensive to fight for, he responded, “No, I’m not saying that at all.”
He then switched the subject to the “terrorist nation” of Iran rather than any actions by Saudi Arabia.
The US needs a “counterbalance” to Iran, “and Israel needs help, too,” he said. “If we abandon Saudi Arabia, it would be a terrible mistake.”
But Republican Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky contended the administration has “blinders on” in comparing Iran and Saudi Arabia.
It's a sign of weakness not to stand up to Saudi ArabiaRand Paul
“It’s a sign of weakness not to stand up to Saudi Arabia,” Mr Paul said in an interview. “Sometimes when you have two evils, maybe you don’t support either side.”
Republican Lindsey Graham, the South Carolina senator who is close to Mr Trump, also disagreed with the president’s statement, saying America must not lose its “moral voice” on the international stage.
“It is not in our national security interests to look the other way when it comes to the brutal murder of Mr Jamal Khashoggi,” Mr Graham said.
I fully realize we have to deal with bad actors and imperfect situations on the international stage.— Lindsey Graham (@LindseyGrahamSC) November 20, 2018
However, when we lose our moral voice, we lose our strongest asset.
Likewise, Representative Adam Schiff, ranking Democrat on the House intelligence committee, said that to suggest that US silence can be bought with arms sales “undermines respect for the office of the presidency, the credibility of our intelligence community and America’s standing as a champion of human rights”.
Mr Trump told reporters on the South Lawn that oil prices would “skyrocket” if the US broke with the Saudis, and he was not going to “destroy” the world’s economy by being “foolish with Saudi Arabia”.
Asked about any personal financial involvement, he said: “Saudi Arabia has nothing to do with me. What does have to do with me is putting America first.”
Mr Trump said that King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed both “vigorously deny” any knowledge of the planning or execution of the killing.
He also said the CIA has not made a conclusive determination about whether the crown prince ordered it.
“We may never know all of the facts surrounding the murder of Mr Jamal Khashoggi,” Mr Trump said.
“In any case, our relationship is with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. They have been a great ally in our very important fight against Iran.”
Saudi prosecutors say a 15-man team sent to Istanbul exceeded its authority when the lead negotiator in the team decided to kill Mr Khashoggi for refusing orders to return. The Saudis say the agents dismembered his body, which has not been found.