FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP/Getty Images(WASHINGTON) — Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary James Mattis issued their most definitive dismissals yet of the CIA's reported assessment that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered the killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.
"There is no direct reporting connecting the Crown Prince to the order to murder Jamal Khashoggi," Pompeo told reporters on Capitol Hill shortly after briefing all senators behind closed doors on Saudi Arabia and Yemen, declining to say more in an unclassified setting.
"We have no smoking gun that the Crown Prince was involved. Not the intelligence community or anyone else," said Mattis hours later at the Pentagon.
Their briefing on Capitol Hill was not well-received by Republicans and Democrats, who expressed frustration that CIA director Gina Haspel was not present to share the agency's assessment or any intelligence. That frustration is fueling a new legislation to withdraw U.S. military support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen as a way to send a signal to the kingdom.
At the heart of the showdown between Congress and the White House is whether the crown prince ordered Khashoggi's killing, with both Republican and Democratic senators saying for weeks that all U.S. intelligence indicates he did, while Trump cast doubt on that and issued unwavering support for the Saudis in an extraordinary statement last week.
While Pompeo said there's no "direct" evidence tying Prince Mohammed to Khashoggi, several senators said there's enough evidence to make clear the young crown prince, who's the real power behind his father King Salman's throne, was involved.
Pompeo is "very careful when he says there's no direct reporting," Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., told reporters. "But there's plenty of evidence — some of it might be second-hand — that has lead the CIA to issue its findings that there's high confidence, moderate to high confidence… this is a crime that was committed with direct knowledge by the Saudi royal family, including MBS," Kaine said, using the crown prince's initials, as he's commonly referred to.
Pompeo declined twice to say why Haspel wasn't there, responding with a smile, "I was asked to be here, and here I am."
Democrats blasted her absence as a "cover-up," with Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois saying Pompeo and Mattis said the White House blocked Haspel from attending — something the White House denied Tuesday. Even top Republicans expressed frustration so strong that some would join Democrats and vote to advance that bill on the U.S. role in Yemen — with a vote scheduled for 4 p.m. Wednesday.
Pompeo called Khashoggi's murder "heinous" after the briefing, but his primary purpose on Capitol Hill was to kill that War Powers Resolution. He said it was "poorly timed" as the Saudi-backed Yemeni government and the Iranian-aligned Houthi rebels prepare for peace talks in Sweden next month, arguing that it "undermines" those talks and encourages the Houthis and Iran not to support them.
But Sen. Chris Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat, said that was not true, countering that the resolution would actually send a message to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to back peace talks, pushing those talks to "the finish line."
The vote over U.S. support for the war in Yemen has become a proxy for the Khashoggi murder, with many senators seeing it as a way to punish the Saudis, which the Trump administration has done little to do — a weak response that needs to be balanced, according to Sen. Bob Corker, a Tennessee Republican and the outgoing chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
"The question is will the administration try to seek that balance in the next hour or two or three, or will Congress be left to a blunt object to try to respond itself," said Corker, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee who added he was "very likely" to support a vote to advance the War Powers Resolution. A similar vote failed earlier this year after Republicans and several Democrats blocked it, a majority that seems to have disappeared after Khashoggi's murder.
The legislation's sponsors — Republican Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, and Sen. Bernie Sanders, the Vermont Independent, and Murphy — all expressed optimism that they have the votes to proceed this time around. But Republican leadership on the Hill has been trying to sink the bill to protect the administration.
While the administration has sanctioned and revoked visas for nearly two dozen Saudi officials that Saudi Arabia has blamed for the murder, Congress has said it is not enough and is now considering further action, like blocking future arms sales or sanctioning the crown prince. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a vocal ally of President Trump's, went even further, telling reporters he would withhold his vote on a year-end spending bill until Haspel briefs senators.
"I am not going to be denied the ability to be briefed by the CIA, that we have oversight of, about whether or not their assessment supports my belief that this could not have happened without MBS knowing," he said, "and if the briefing reinforces the conclusion that I already have tentatively formed, then there will be no more business as usual with Saudi Arabia."
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