(Updated Saturday) U.S. Senator Chris Murphy on Thursday called for an immediate suspension of military support for the Saudi Arabia-led coalition in Yemen as news reports say a missing journalist and Washington Post columnist was killed at the Saudi consulate in Turkey.
President Donald Trump, however, expressed concern with taking such a step saying it would cost U.S. defense manufacturers as much as $110 billion in contracts that Saudi Arabia could easily give to Russia or China instead.
“I would not be in favor of stopping a country from spending $110 billion and letting Russia have that money and China have that money,” Trump said in the Oval Office.
Trump said he wants to get to the bottom of what has happened to Jamal Khashoggi, a journalist and columnist who disappeared last week after visiting the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Trump added his displeasure if reports are confirmed that he was killed by the Saudis.
“We don’t like it. We don’t like it even a little bit,” he said.
The Washington Post reported that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman had ordered an operation to lure Khashoggi to Saudi Arabia to detain him. Turkish officials say a Saudi security team lay in wait for him at the consulate and killed him.
Khashoggi has been living in Virginia and writing columns over the last year.
In a statement released Saturday, Fred Hiatt, The Post’s editorial page editor, said that if reports from Turkey are true, this would represent “a monstrous and unfathomable act.” National Press Club President Andrea Edney also said in a statement: “If harm has come to him, those responsible must be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.”
Murphy issued a statement Thursday calling on the Trump administration to cease military support for the Saudi Arabia-led coalition in Yemen — an issue that he has been pressing for more than a year over the humanitarian cost of the war.
“Jamal Khashoggi made a name for himself by speaking truth to power — and it most likely got him killed. Saudi Arabia needs to immediately produce evidence backing up their claim that Jamal left the consulate unharmed. If they don’t, their blanket denials without any alternative explanation only serve to reinforce the mounting evidence indicating Saudi Arabia sent a hit squad to kill him and dispose of his body,” Murphy said.
A day earlier, Murphy joined other members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in a letter calling on Trump to investigate and potentially sanction Saudi Arabia under U.S. human rights law for Khashoggi’s disappearance and alleged murder.
The bipartisan letter, signed by 22 committee members, invoked terms of the 2012 Magnitsky Act requiring the president to “to determine whether a foreign person is responsible for an extrajudicial killing” and demanding a report to Congress within 120 days.
Murphy has been a longtime critic of the Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen. He introduced legislation more than a year ago seeking to block U.S. military support for the campaign over its humanitarian consequences — including the deaths of civilians.
“Saudi Arabia continues to bomb civilians inside Yemen, knowingly fund an intolerant version of Islam that easily leads to radicalization, and now they feel so immune from consequences that they have reportedly kidnapped and murdered a U.S. resident who criticized the regime. These are the actions of a rogue state, not an ally, and the United States need to send an immediate signal that this behavior is unacceptable,” Murphy said Thursday.
On his first foreign trip as president last May, Trump began in Saudi Arabia where he signed a joint “strategic vision” that included $110 billion in American arms sales and other new investments that the administration said would bring hundreds of thousands of jobs.
Trump appears reluctant to jeopardize those sales now as he expressed in the Oval Office and in a telephone interview Wednesday evening with Fox News. When asked about blocking arms sales to the kingdom, he said: “Well, I think that would be hurting us” and that “I think that would be a very, very tough pill to swallow for our country.”
Murphy’s proposal is much narrower than a complete ban on military sales to Saudi Arabia that Trump would not support. Although it could include blocking the sale of some weapons that could be used in the Yemen fight, it mostly would halt backup support the U.S. military has otherwise been providing such as refueling bombers.
The Senate has previously been unwilling to support Murphy’s efforts. In March, it voted 55-44 to block consideration of a resolution to end U.S. support for the Saudi war in Yemen that was introduced by Murphy, Bernie Sanders, Ind.-Vt., and Mike Lee, R-Utah.
However, sentiment may be shifting.
Senator Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who chairs the Appropriations subcommittee on foreign operations, told reporters there would be “hell to pay” if it is confirmed that a Saudi security team killed Khashoggi.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tenn., says the reports that Khashoggi was killed appear to be true but noted that if he is alive, Saudi Arabia could simply produce him.
More than a dozen senators on both sides of the political aisle have issued press statements raising concerns about Khashoggi and calling for the Saudis to investigate his disappearance.
Along with Murphy, Corker and Graham, Senators Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., Marco Rubio, R-Fla., Robert Menendez, D-N.J., Tim Kaine, D-Va., Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Todd Young, R-Ind., issued statements on the letter sent to Trump triggering a Magnitsky investigation.
Members of Congress also have turned to social media to express their outrage.
Senator Richard Blumenthal posted on Twitter a link to a Washington Post opinion piece that evidence points to Saudi involvement in Khashoggi’s disappearance and apparent death. He offered his own thoughts as well: “Blood on Saudi hands? U.S. must investigate apparent murder of brave journalist Jamal Khashoggi. No business as usual.”
Connecticut Congressman Joe Courtney also took to Twitter to share that he was co-sponsoring a resolution to halt U.S. support for the Saudi-led conflict in Yemen.
Matt Corey, Murphy’s Republican opponent, said he would love to debate the issue of U.S. relations with Saudi Arabia, and America’s role in the Middle East, but “Murphy is dodging me and says he is just too busy to debate. Like with every other issue he decides to grandstand on, before all of the facts are in, I’m guessing his staff is preparing a fundraising email right now on. As a US Senator, I would demand accountability and transparency from Saudi Arabia, but would wait until all of the facts are in before interjecting myself in State Department affairs.”