Intel: Why Congress launched federal probe of Saudi crown prince

al-monitor Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attends a session of the Shura Council in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Nov. 19, 2018.  Photo by Bandar Algaloud/Courtesy of Saudi Royal Court/Handout via REUTERS.

Nov 21, 2018

Frustrated with President Donald Trump’s muted response to Saudi Arabia’s murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Congress has triggered a federal probe into Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s alleged involvement. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tenn., and top Democrat Bob Menendez, D-N.J., used a 2016 human rights law to launch the investigation on Tuesday after Trump released a lengthy statement ardently defending Saudi Arabia. 

Unprecedented times call for unprecedented measures,” Menendez tweeted. “Now Pres. Trump must SPECIFICALLY determine if Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman himself is responsible for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi.”

The Global Magnitsky Act probe requires the Trump administration to officially report to Congress on intelligence agencies’ conclusions regarding bin Salman's alleged role in ordering Khashoggi’s killing. However, the administration can opt not to pursue sanctions even if it concludes the crown prince was involved.

Why it matters: The probe reflects a strong bipartisan backlash against Trump’s efforts to shield the prince from accountability despite reports that the CIA believes he ordered Khashoggi’s assassination. Trump’s statement directly challenged Congress and accused lawmakers of taking a hard line on Saudi Arabia “for political or other reasons.”

“I never thought I’d see the day a White house would moonlight as a public relations firm for the crown prince of Saudi Arabia,” Corker tweeted in response.

Second probe: This will be the second time Congress has triggered a federal probe into the Khashoggi murder. Last month Corker and Menendez teamed up with a bipartisan group of 20 other senators to launch the first investigation. As a result, the Trump administration sanctioned 17 Saudi officials last week for their involvement in the murder. But Riyadh had already arrested all 17 men while denying bin Salman's involvement. 

What’s next? The Trump administration now has four months to complete the investigation and determine whether it should sanction the crown prince. In the meantime, a bipartisan group of six senators has introduced the Saudi Arabia Accountability and Yemen Act. The bill would sanction Saudi royals involved in the Khashoggi murder and end certain arms sales to Riyadh through 2020 while ensuring that the United States does not resume midair refueling support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen.

Next week, the Senate will once again vote on a resolution to fully end US support for the Yemen war. Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., who is favored to become House speaker when Democrats take control of the lower chamber in January, co-sponsored the same resolution on Tuesday.

Know more: Congressional correspondent Bryant Harris has the lowdown on what exactly the bipartisan Saudi Arabia Accountability and Yemen Act entails. And be sure to read his story about Democrat-led efforts to fully terminate US support for the Saudi coalition in Yemen.

-Bryant Harris 

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