LEAH MILLIS/AFP/Getty Images(NEW YORK) — Secretary of State Mike Pompeo again cast doubt on the reported CIA assessment that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was involved in the brutal murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, saying the U.S. was still "developing" a "set of facts" and media reports about the assessment were "inaccurate."
His defense of Saudi Arabia, which ranged from the Saudis "have already paid the price" for the killing to Iran is the real problem in the region. But there is now growing anger in Congress over the kingdom's actions and that Trump defense — which some lawmakers are even calling a cover-up.
The fervor in Congress has helped fuel support for legislation to withdraw U.S. military assistance to the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen. But while the Senate will begin debate on that bill Wednesday, Republican leadership in the House moved to block it through a procedural motion after it quashed a similar vote in early November.
CIA director Gina Haspel briefed leadership in the House of Representatives on the agency's assessment Wednesday, which senators briefed by Haspel said points to the crown prince's direct involvement, including exchanging messages with the team as the plot unfolded.
But Pompeo said the media's reporting on the assessment "has been inaccurate," while declining to say what was false.
"They're still working on this," he added of the CIA. "The direct evidence isn't yet available. It may show up tomorrow, it may have shown up overnight, but I haven't seen it."
Pompeo was grilled by the anchors of "Fox and Friends," the network's morning news program that is watched closely by President Donald Trump. When pressed by one anchor on whether he believed the crown prince's denials, Pompeo did not respond, saying instead, "The kingdom of Saudi Arabia decides who runs the country."
Emerging from the CIA briefing, House members were reticent to talk about the agency's assessment, but said there would be hearings next year to reassess the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia.
"I think that all leaders of countries are responsible for things that happen under them," said Rep. Eliot Engel, D-New York, who will become chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee when Democrats take control of the chamber next year. "We've still got to get to the bottom of it … It's not looking too good right now, but we'll see."
Any action in the House will have to wait until next year after Republican leadership inserted a resolution into the must-pass farm bill to block a vote on a war powers resolution that would pull U.S. support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen.
"Just when you thought Congress couldn't get any swampier, we continue to exceed even the lowest expectations," said Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Kentucky, who was trying to win GOP support for the legislation.
"The only reason the leadership is doing this is because they know there are dozens of Republicans who will stand with Democrats to stop the killing in Yemen," said Massie's partner Rep. Ro Khanna, D-California, who introduced the legislation.
While efforts in the House were stymied again, the Senate will begin debate on its own resolution two weeks after the chamber voted to advance it, in a slap to the faces of Pompeo and Defense Secretary James Mattis, hours after the two men lobbied all senators to not support it in a closed door briefing.
After that disastrous briefing, Republicans and Democrats aimed to send a message to the Saudis and the White House by voting on the war powers resolution, which, despite opposition from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, is now expected to pass, according to Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tennessee, chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Without accompanying legislation from the House, it will not go to the president's desk this year. But Corker told ABC News the Senate may still also vote on a joint congressional resolution that includes a strong condemnation of the crown prince, reading, "The Senate believed the crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, is responsible for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi."
Either way, the actions are all together a sharp rebuke of Trump and his handling of the Khashoggi affair.
But Pompeo pushed back Wednesday, defending the administration's response by pointing to the sanctions and visa bans imposed on the team that carried out the attack. Saudi Arabia has said that the team conducted a rogue operation, headed by the deputy intelligence chief Ahmed al-Asiri, who has since been fired.
The Trump administration has never challenged their narrative, with Pompeo saying Wednesday, "The Saudis have already paid the price. The folks who actually committed the murder, we've held accountable. We will continue to do that."
Two top advisers to the crown prince were fired for their roles, and all of the team members on the ground in Istanbul, Turkey, have been arrested in Saudi Arabia, with the Saudi public prosecutor seeking the death penalty for five of them. That undermines the effect of any U.S. sanctions or visa bans, according to critics.
Pompeo also downplayed the incident and said the threat from Iran is the real challenge: "No one underestimates how horrible this murder was, but remember, Iran is running rampant throughout the Middle East. The death of any one individual is awful. The death of hundreds of thousands of people in Europe or the Middle East or the United States matters an awful lot, and President Trump is committed to protecting America."
Throughout the interview, the top U.S. diplomat did not condemn or use any tough language concerning Saudi Arabia.
That stood in contrast to U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, who will leave her post at the end of the year.
The administration must have a "serious, hard talk with the Saudis to let them know we won't condone this, we won't give you a pass, and don't do it again," Haley told NBC News in an interview that aired Wednesday.
"When these things happen, we have to step back and never back away from our principles," Haley added.
But she also praised the Saudis as "our partner in defeating and dealing with Iran" and called that help "hugely important."
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