Senate rebukes Trump, Saudi Arabia on Khashoggi and Yemen war
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., joined at left by Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., holds a news conference after the Senate passed a resolution he introduced that would pull assistance from the Saudi-led war in Yemen, a measure to rebuke Saudi Arabia after the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, at the Capitol in Washington, Thursday, Dec. 13, 2018. | J. Scott Applewhite/AP

WASHINGTON—In back-to-back votes against the president, the Senate delivered an unusual rebuke yesterday of Donald Trump’s response to the death of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and signaled new skepticism from Capitol Hill toward Saudi Arabia, the longtime Middle East ally of the United States.

The sudden willingness of the Republican-led Senate to stand up to the president comes, of course, as numerous investigations and prosecutors close in on Trump—having resulted in not only a growing list of guilty verdicts and pleas involving his close associates but in the sentencing to jail this week of Michael Cohen, his long-time lawyer.

Although the Senate resolutions are largely symbolic—because the Republicans in the House have already sabotaged chances of approval of similar anti-Trump resolutions there—passage Thursday showed a willingness by senators to assert oversight of Trump administration foreign policy and the relationship with Saudi Arabia.

It also marked the collapse of the Trump administration’s effort in the Senate to contain fallout from the gruesome killing of the Washington Post journalist.

One measure recommended that the U.S. end its assistance to Saudi Arabia for the war in Yemen. The other put the blame for the death of Khashoggi squarely on Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Both had been vigorously opposed by the Trump administration and threatened with a presidential veto. Top brass were on Capitol Hill ahead of voting to prevent further action in the House.

“The current relationship with Saudi Arabia is not working,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who opposed the Yemen resolution but called the crown prince “so toxic, so tainted, so flawed” after the Khashoggi killing that “you’re never going to have a relationship with the United States Senate unless things change.”

The bipartisan votes came two months after the Saudi journalist’s slaying at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul and after Trump persistently equivocated over who was responsible. U.S. intelligence officials concluded that bin Salman must have at least known of the plot, but Trump has repeatedly praised the kingdom.

Since then there have been press reports that the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, actually met with and coached the Saudi prince on how to escape blame for the murder.

Senators made clear where they put the blame. The resolution, passed by unanimous agreement, says the Senate believes the crown prince is “responsible for the murder” and calls for the Saudi Arabian government to “ensure appropriate accountability.”

Senators voted 56-41 to recommend that the U.S. stop supporting the war in Yemen, a direct affront to the administration’s war powers abilities.

Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who co-sponsored the Yemen resolution with Republican Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, called passage a “historic moment.”

Lee said Khashoggi’s death focused attention “on the fact that we have been led into this civil war in Yemen half a world away” and “we’ve done so following the lead” of Saudi Arabia.

“What the Khashoggi event did was to demonstrate, hey, maybe this isn’t a regime that we should just be following that eagerly into battle,” Lee said.

As Senate approval loomed, the administration dispatched Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis to the House to make the case against the resolutions and warn of damage they could do to the U.S.-Saudi relationship. A congressional aide and an administration official said their appearance was aimed at stopping any House action on the resolutions.

Thanks to the House Republicans, led by Speaker Paul Ryan, the U.S. will continue to support the killing in Yemen.

Ryan, who backs the war, selects the nine majority members of the House rules committee, which sets the rules by which a bill will be voted on. On Tuesday, the committee inserted into the rules for the Farm Bill a provision that blocked the House from voting on a Yemen resolution. It was a clever maneuver because the farm bill was backed by huge bipartisan majorities. Nevertheless, a dozen Republicans opposed to the war voted against the doctored farm bill to show their anger over the Ryan maneuver. Ryan’s plan was saved, however, because five Democrats flipped and voted in favor of continuing the policy of war and starvation against the people of Yemen.

To many GOP members of Congress and the five Democrats who joined them, asking them to join an effort to stop a war in which the U.S. has a disgusting amount of blood on its hands was apparently a bridge too far.

CIA Director Gina Haspel briefed House leaders Wednesday on the Khashoggi slaying.

The journalist, who had lived in the U.S. and wrote for The Washington Post, had been critical of the Saudi regime. He was killed in what U.S. officials have described as an elaborate plot as he visited the consulate for marriage paperwork.

Saudi prosecutors have said a 15-man team sent to Istanbul killed Khashoggi and then dismembered his body, which has not been found. Those findings came after Saudi authorities spent weeks denying Khashoggi had been killed in the consulate.

Trump has been reluctant to condemn the crown prince. He said the United States “intends to remain a steadfast partner” of the country, touted Saudi arms deals worth billions of dollars to the U.S., and thanked the Saudis for plunging oil prices.

As important if not more important to Trump, of course, are the huge loans he and his family members have received from autocratic leaders in countries like Saudi Arabia and the neighboring United Arab Emirates. Both those countries are backing the genocide in Yemen.

Graham and Sen. Bob Menendez, the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, have rejected Trump’s economic arguments for good relations with the Saudis even as they stay away from the issue of the president’s practice of allowing his own financial interests to dictate foreign policy. They are reportedly setting the stage for legislation next year that goes further in halting arms sales and taking other measures.

Menendez says economic concerns do not overpower human rights and the U.S. must send a “global message that killing with impunity” will not be tolerated.

Hammadi Issa/AP

Frustration with the crown prince and the White House prompted several Republicans to support the Yemen resolution. Seven Republicans and all Democrats voted for it. Some already had concerns about the war, which human rights groups say is wreaking havoc on the country and subjecting civilians, many of them children, to deadly disease and indiscriminate bombing.

The resolution condemning Saudi Arabia for Khashoggi’s slaying was from Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Both Republicans opposed the Yemen resolution and voted against it.

McConnell said senators have grave concerns about Khashoggi’s killing, but “we also want to preserve a 70-year partnership between the United States and Saudi Arabia, and we want to ensure it continues to serve American interests and stabilizes a dangerous and critical region.”

But McConnell encouraged passage of the Khashoggi resolution and said it provided “a clear and unambiguous message about how we feel about what happened to this journalist.”

The Senate debate came as the United Nations secretary general on Thursday announced that Yemen’s warring sides have agreed to a province-wide cease-fire and withdrawal of troops in Hodeida, a contested Red Sea port city. The agreement came during peace talks in Sweden.

The brutal four-year-old civil war pits the Yemeni government, supported by a Saudi-led coalition, against rebels known as Houthis.

Most observers agree that as President Trump’s long-term prospects of surviving impeachment worsen there will be an increase in efforts in Congress to challenge basic tenets of more of his policies.

The qualitatively worse turn for him this week was when a federal district court found Michael Cohen guilty of violating campaign finance law by following the president’s orders to make hush money payments to women with whom Trump had had sex. The payments were made to prevent news from getting out that could cause him to lose the 2016 presidential election.

For the first time, Trump is now on record in a court ruling as having committed a felony even though he himself was not part of the indictment at issue in the court case.

Associated Press writers Laurie Kellman, Marie Claire Jalonick, Lisa Mascaro, and Matthew Lee and People’s World editor-in-chief John Wojcik contributed to this report.