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Intel: Why Congress isn’t satisfied with Trump’s latest Saudi sanctions

Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY) speaks during a news conference discussing Russian sanctions on Capitol Hill February 15, 2017 in Washington, DC.  
A cloud of intrigue over ties with Moscow has hovered over President Donald Trump since US intelligence alleged the Russian government interfered with the presidential election last year against his opponent Hillary Clinton. On Monday, Trump's national security adviser Michael Flynn was forced to resign over his private conversations with a Russian diplomat, and on Wedn

The Donald Trump administration today took the unprecedented step of sanctioning several Saudi officials for their suspected role in murdering journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. But Congress, which set in motion today's action by pushing for a federal probe under the Global Magnitsky Act last month, isn’t satisfied.

“These sanctions are an appropriate response to the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, but today’s action does not put this issue to rest,” Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., who is likely to assume control of the House Foreign Affairs Committee in January, said in a statement. “It remains unclear whether the Trump administration has determined who is responsible for this horrific incident. Until responsibility is confirmed, this matter is unresolved and deserves Congress’ scrutiny.”

Engel also accused the Trump administration of initially trying to “sweep this incident under the rug.”

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee's top Democrat, Bob Menendez of New Jersey, also tweeted that this “announcement looks like a coordinated attempt to sweep this case under the rug. I expect full accountability and will work to ensure it.”

Why it matters: The 17 sanctioned individuals are largely officials whom Riyadh has already blamed for killing Khashoggi. They conspicuously omit Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman despite reports alleging that he personally directed Khashoggi’s murder.

Several Democratic senators — and at least one Republican — who first launched the federal probe into Khashoggi’s murder have called for sanctions on higher level officials, implying that Prince Mohammed himself is liable.

“It is difficult for any reasonable person with knowledge of Saudi Arabia’s government to believe such high-level officials would conduct a plot of this significance without the direction of the crown prince,” said Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., the architect of the human rights law used as the basis for the sanctions. Cardin called for “accountability at the highest levels of the Saudi government.”

Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., accused the Trump administration of “following the Saudi playbook of blaming mid-level officials and exonerating its leadership.” Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., said the list is clearly “not comprehensive.”

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., was less aggressive, but nonetheless urged the Trump administration to “hold accountable anyone else linked to this heinous crime, including those at the highest levels of the Saudi government.”

Don’t forget Yemen: Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., went a step further, threatening to fully end US support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen.

“The only acceptable response is to halt all offensive weapons sales and military support for the Saudi-led coalition’s war in Yemen,” Murphy said in a statement, vowing to introduce a resolution doing so “in the coming weeks.”

What’s next? It remains to be seen whether the Trump administration will yield to bipartisan pressure for tougher action or stick with Saudi Arabia’s latest narrative. NBC News reported today that the White House is considering extraditing exiled cleric Fethullah Gulen to Turkey to convince President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to loosen the pressure on Riyadh.

Know more: Read congressional correspondent Bryant Harris’ report last month on how an overwhelmingly bipartisan group of lawmakers launched the federal probe that led to today’s sanctions. And read diplomatic correspondent Laura Rozen’s piece for more on who is — and isn’t — sanctioned under today’s measures.

-Bryant Harris

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