(Bloomberg) — Congressional leaders said they don’t believe the explanation from Saudi Arabia that a fistfight led to the death of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and that if Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was behind the killing, the U.S. must impose sanctions.
The comments set up a possible clash between Congress and President Donald Trump, who’s also cast doubt about the Saudi version of events but so far is standing behind the crown prince and emphasizing the economic ties between the two countries.
“If he directed it, we need to put the same types of sanctions in place that we’ve done with other people who’ve done the same thing,” Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, said on CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday. “Collectively, we’ve got to deal with this in an appropriate way.’’
Reversing earlier denials of involvement in Khashoggi’s disappearance on Oct. 2, Saudi authorities said Saturday that an initial probe showed that the Washington Post contributor was killed after “ discussions” at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul turned violent.
The Saudi account conflicts with reports by Turkish officials that a Saudi “hit team” flew in specifically to kill and then dismember Khashoggi, and a New York Times report that some members of the group had close ties to the crown prince. Turkey’s president plans to speak about the case on Tuesday, and the Saudi foreign minister in an interview on Sunday acknowledged a “cover up.”
Read more: Mnuchin Notes Still-Strong Ties to Saudis After Writer’s Death
Trump, after initially calling the Saudi moves a “good first step” and saying “we’re getting close to solving a very big problem,” said later Saturday that it’s a concern that Saudi officials haven’t specified where Khashoggi’s body is. In an interview with the Washington Post, Trump said there have been “lies,” but that the prince is a “strong person, he has very good control.”
Bipartisan members of Congress took to the Sunday morning political shows to say the Saudi story lacks credibility, and that they think the crown prince was likely behind Khashoggi’s death.
“I find it impossible to believe that the crown prince wasn’t involved,” Republican Senator Lindsay Graham of South Carolina, a Trump ally, said on Fox’s “Sunday Morning Futures.” “I’m not going to look the other way.”
Trump is banking on the Saudis to buy billions of dollars worth of U.S. weapons, keep oil flowing to global markets after Iranian sanctions hit next month, and support a long-awaited Middle East peace plan.
But Representative Adam Schiff of California, the top-ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said the situation should be “relationship-altering” for the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, even though he expects Trump to ultimately accept Saudi denials that the crown prince was directly involved.
“We ought to suspend military sales, we ought to suspend certain security assistance, and we ought to impose sanctions on any of those that were directly involved in this murder,” Schiff said on ABC’s “This Week.”
“This really ought to be something that causes us to do a reexamination of our relationship with Saudi Arabia,” Schiff added.
Speaking on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois, the chamber’s No. 2 Democrat, said the Saudi ambassador to the U.S. should be formally expelled until a third-party investigation is done. He said the U.S. should call on its allies to do the same.
‘Pay a Price’
“Unless the Saudi kingdom understands that civilized countries around the world are going to reject this conduct and make sure that they pay a price for it, they’ll continue doing it,”’ Durbin said.
Republican Representative Peter King of New York said he wants Trump to “thread the needle” by strongly condemning Khashoggi’s death while recognizing Saudi Arabia’s strategic value in the region to the U.S., including as a “bulwark” against Iran.
“We have to try to balance it,” King said on ABC. “But again, what happened here was savagery, and we can’t go along with their cover story.”
Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said Sunday on Fox News that there were “discrepancies” with what the Saudi security team that went to the Turkish consulate reported back, and that “we are determined to punish those who are responsible for this murder.” He also predicted that the relationship between the two countries “will weather this.”
Republican Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky said “it’s insulting to anyone who’s analyzing this with any kind of intelligent background to think that, ‘Oh, a fistfight led to a dismemberment with a bone saw,’ ” a reference to the news reports that one of Saudis who went to the consulate brought the instrument.
“It stretches credulity to think the crown prince wasn’t involved in this,” Paul said on “Fox News Sunday.”