American lawmakers have blasted US President Donald Trump for siding with Saudi leaders and refusing to blame Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for the murder of Virginia-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the kingdom’s diplomatic mission in Turkey’s Istanbul early last month.
In a statement issued by the White House on Tuesday, Trump threw his support behind denials earlier made by Saudi King Salman and the crown prince, saying that the two “vigorously deny any knowledge of the planning or execution” of Khashoggi’s killing.
Trump said US intelligence agencies “continue to assess all information,” however; he questioned whether the Saudi crown prince was involved in Khashoggi’s brutal murder.
“Our intelligence agencies continue to assess all information, but it could very well be that the Crown Prince had knowledge of this tragic event – maybe he did and maybe he didn’t!” the American head of state said.
This is while US media reported on Saturday that the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) believed with “high confidence” that the Saudi crown prince had directly ordered the killing.
The Tuesday statement prompted US senators from Democratic and Republican Party to criticize Trump’s siding with Saudi leaders in the case of the dissident journalist.
Senators Dianne Feinstein and Ron Wyden, the two senior Democrats on the Senate Intelligence Committee, and Senator Jeanne Shaheen, a senior member of the Foreign Relations panel, criticized the US president’s remarks.
“I’m shocked that President Trump said there will be no punishment for Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman for the killing of Jamal Khashoggi,” Feinstein said in a statement.
“Given the fact that Saudi security organizations are under the absolute control of the crown prince, there’s every reason to believe the crown prince gave the order,” Feinstein added.
“Media reports now say the CIA is confident the crown prince directed Khashoggi’s murder. To allow this to happen with no consequences is offensive to every value the United States holds dear,” she noted.
Feinstein also said she would vote against any future arms sale to Saudi Arabia and called on Washington to impose sanctions on the crown prince.
Wyden slammed the American head of state for giving Riyadh what he called “a free pass.”
“Donald Trump’s statement makes clear that he does not care who ordered the brutal murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi,” Wyden said in a statement.
“Giving the Saudis a free pass here reveals this administration’s crippling weakness, even in the face of the murder of a journalist and US resident,” he noted.
Shaheen condemned “Trump’s habit of siding with murderous foreign dictators over American intelligence professionals,” describing his response to Khashoggi’s killing “a stain on our democracy that undermines the American ideal.”
“Congress must now stand up with bipartisan resolve to condemn the brutal slaying of Jamal Khashoggi and pass legislation to respond to this and other Saudi crimes,” she said.
A Turkish daily says the audio recordings of Khashoggi’s murder, which are expected to be released this week, will “shake the world” and “turn the Saudi palace upside down.”
Senator Ben Cardin, a senior member of the Foreign Relations Committee, denounced Trump’s statement as “outrageous and unprecedented.”
“For the president to knowingly come to the defense of an individual who it appears ordered the murder of a political critic, is something I thought the world would never witness,” he said in a statement.
Senator Jack Reed, the top-ranking Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, slammed Trump’s “unwillingness to stand up to Saudi Arabia” for Khashoggi’s murder as “feckless.”
Senate Republicans also joined the chorus of criticism later on Tuesday.
Republican US Senator Rand Paul blasted Trump’s statement siding with Saudi leaders over denying responsibility for the death of Khashoggi, characterizing the president’s remarks as “Saudi Arabia First.”
Paul disputed the Trump’s claim that he was pushing an “America First” policy since he refused to punish the Saudi crown prince in Khashoggi’s case.
“The President indicates that Saudi Arabia is the lesser two evils compared to Iran and so the US won’t punish Saudi Arabia for the brutal killing and dismemberment of a dissident journalist in their consulate. I disagree,” Paul wrote on Twitter.
“I’m pretty sure this statement is Saudi Arabia First, not America First. I’m also pretty sure John Bolton wrote it,” Paul added, referring to Trump’s national security adviser.
The Kentucky Republican, one of Saudi Arabia’s most outspoken critics, has been calling for a vote on bipartisan legislation that would block a $110 billion worth of arms sale to Riyadh.
“We should, at the very least, NOT reward Saudi Arabia with our sophisticated armaments that they in turn use to bomb civilians,” Paul also said in his tweet. “I will continue to press for legislation to stop the Saudi arms sales and the war in Yemen.”
Senator Lindsey Graham, one of Trump’s staunchest allies, warned the US president against ignoring Saudi Arabia’s bad behavior and said the kingdom must be held accountable for the death of the US-based journalist.
“It is not in our national security interests to look the other way when it comes to the brutal murder of Mr. Jamal Khashoggi,” the South Carolina Republican said in a statement.
Graham, who is set to become chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee in January, demanded that the Senate take action by voting on sanctions legislation against Riyadh.
“I firmly believe there will be strong bipartisan support for serious sanctions against Saudi Arabia, including appropriate members of the royal family, for this barbaric act which defied all civilized norms,” he said in his statement.
“While Saudi Arabia is a strategic ally, the behavior of the Crown Prince – in multiple ways – has shown disrespect for the relationship and made him, in my view, beyond toxic,” Graham added.
The United States imposed economic sanctions on 17 Saudi nationals last week, including suspected members of an alleged hit squad and senior advisers to bin Salman.
Saudi Arabia is facing global criticism over Khashoggi’s killing inside the Saudi consulate in the Turkish city of Istanbul on October 2.
Khashoggi, a prominent commentator on Saudi affairs who wrote for the Washington Post’s Global Opinions section, had lived in self-imposed exile in the US since September 2017, when he left Saudi Arabia over fears of the Riyadh regime’s crackdown on critical voices.
The 59-year-old critic was seeking to secure documentation for his forthcoming marriage when he entered the Saudi consulate, but never came out despite Riyadh’s initial claim that he exited the mission less than an hour after completing his paperwork.
The Saudi kingdom, after denying the murder for several days, finally admitted that Khashoggi had been killed in the consulate during an interrogation by rogue operatives that had gone wrong after diplomatic pressure grew tremendously on Riyadh to give an account on the mysterious fate of its national.
However, Saudi Arabia said that it did not know the whereabouts of Khashoggi’s body, which is widely believed to have been dismembered.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said the assassination was ordered at the “highest levels” of the Saudi government, but stopped short of pointing the finger of blame at the crown prince.
Turkey wants the 15-man team that it says killed the journalist to be tried there.