A bipartisan group of senators emerged frustrated from a briefing with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Saudi Arabia policy Wednesday, with some even saying the classified meeting convinced them to buck the administration by publicly opposing the longtime U.S. ally.
The Senate is considering a vote on a resolution that would end U.S. support for Saudi Arabia’s proxy war with Iran in Yemen. The contentious issue of the Yemen war was further complicated by the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul last month. Western intelligence agencies, including the CIA, have reportedly concluded that Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman ordered the murder, while President Trump and other administration officials have cast doubt on that conclusion.
Critics have excoriated the Trump administration for failing to deliver a strong response to the Saudi government, which has denied responsibility for Khashoggi’s murder in a series of shifting explanations as public outrage mounts.
Pompeo called the Senate resolution “poorly timed” and stressed that there is “no direct reporting” connecting the crown prince to Khashoggi’s murder. The U.S. is “right on the cusp” of negotiating a ceasefire in Yemen, and the resolution in question would “undermine” that and “encourage the Iranians.”
The secretary of state also accused critics of the administration’s Saudi Arabia policy of hypocrisy, saying the same fault-finders backed former president Obama’s generous financial aid to Iran, a state sponsor of terror.
“Where was this echo chamber, where were these avatars of human rights, when Mr. Obama gave the mullahs pallets of cash to carry out their work as the world’s largest state sponsor of terrorism?” Pompeo said in a strongly-worded op-ed published Wednesday in the Wall Street Journal.
The Trump administration’s goal of strengthening America’s alliance with the Saudi kingdom “isn’t popular in the salons of Washington,” Pompeo wrote, but “degrading U.S.-Saudi ties would be a grave mistake for the national security of the U.S. and its allies.”
Democratic senator Chris Coons told reporters following the briefing that he will switch his vote to support the resolution, which requires the withdrawal of all U.S. troops in “or affecting” Yemen within 30 days except those fighting al-Qaeda. “I left the briefing unsatisfied,” he said, calling it a “significant mistake” that CIA Director Gina Haspel did not attend the briefing.
Republican senator Jeff Flake said he would vote to pull out of Yemen as well and concurred with Coons that “a lot of us were frustrated” that Haspel was not present for the briefing.
“I’m all for realpolitik,” Flake said of Pompeo’s objection that a withdrawal from Yemen would encourage Iranian misbehavior. “But that suggests that you accept the truth. And I think we all know what the truth is: that if [the crown prince] wasn’t directly involved, he certainly knew of it.”
“It is outrageous that we are willing to turn our eye away from such a murder because we have quote-unquote interests,” said Democratic senator Bob Menenedez, adding that he heard “nothing convincing” against the resolution.
Democratic senator Dick Durbin claimed the White House gave the direction that Haspel would not participate in the briefing and said the information provided was “interesting but not persuasive.”
Independent senator Bernie Sanders, who sponsored the Yemen resolution, called Saudi Arabia’s government a “despotic, dishonest dictatorship” and said the situation in Yemen is the “worst humanitarian crisis on earth.”
Republican senator Bob Corker said he would likely vote in favor of the resolution, but emphasized that it is amendable afterwards.
“It’s his agency that killed this journalist, and they’ve taken no ownership of that,” Corker said of the crown prince, calling him “out of control.”
Senator Mike Lee argued that the war in Yemen was never approved by Congress when it should have been.
“There shouldn’t be,” the Utah Republican said of resistance on his party’s side to Sanders’s resolution. “We’ve all sworn an oath to uphold, protect, and defend the Constitution.”