Congress was heading for a showdown with President Trump on Sunday over sanctions against Saudi Arabia for the killing of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi, amid growing bipartisan criticism of the president’s reluctance to pin blame on the Saudi royal family.
Sen. Chris Murphy, Connecticut Democrat and a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said sanctions against Saudi Arabia are “probably the most appropriate step” after Mr. Trump skipped a congressional deadline Friday for delivering a report on who’s responsible for the slaying of Khashoggi.
“Congress doesn’t have to wait for the president to fulfill his duty,” Mr. Murphy said on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “We can just make a determination ourselves that [Saudi Crown Prince] Mohammed bin Salman ordered these murders and there should be some kind of penalty and repercussions for that.”
A bipartisan group of lawmakers, including Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey and Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, introduced legislation Friday that would bar certain arms sales to Riyadh in response to Khashoggi’s slaying last October by Saudi operatives, and its role in Yemen’s civil war.
“Seeing as the Trump administration has no intention of insisting on full accountability for Mr. Khashoggi’s murderers, it is time for Congress to step in and impose real consequences to fundamentally re-examine our relationship with the kingdom of Saudi Arabia and with the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen,” Mr. Menendez said in a statement.
Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al Jubeir said after meeting with lawmakers Friday that Congress should wait for the outcome of trials of 17 alleged assailants of Khashoggi, including five men who are facing the death penalty. He said imposing sanctions now would be “putting the cart before the horse.”
“I wish Congress would take a step back,” he said.
Mr. Al Jubeir insisted that the crown prince, who is the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, did not authorize the killing. He called the slaying a “rogue operation.”
“There was no order given to conduct this operation,” he said, describing the murder of the dissident as a “huge mistake.”
Khashoggi, an American resident and a columnist for The Washington Post, was killed last October at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, by the team of Saudi operatives. His body has not been recovered.
U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded that the crown prince at least had knowledge of the plot.
Mr. Al Jubeir called U.S. criticism of Saudi leadership “a red line.”
“I think for anyone to think they can dictate what we should do or what our leadership should do is preposterous,” he said.
A bipartisan group of senators sent a letter to Mr. Trump in October calling for an investigation and a decision on sanctions under the global Magnitsky Human Rights Act, which is aimed at punishing foreign government officials for human rights violations.
The 120-day deadline for the president’s response was Friday. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo instead sent a letter to Congress saying the president “maintains his discretion to decline to act on congressional committee requests when appropriate.”
Mr. Pompeo noted that the administration has imposed sanctions on the 17 Saudi nationals believed to be involved in the killing.
The top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas, joined Democrats in criticizing Mr. Trump’s failure to send a report to Congress. Mr. McCaul said he is “deeply troubled” by the administration ignoring the deadline.
He said the administration’s letter doesn’t meet the law’s requirements as requested by committee chairmen last October, including then-Senate Foreign Affairs Chairman Bob Corker, Tennessee Republican.
“Jamal’s murder was appalling,” Mr. McCaul said. “The lesson of this terrible event needs to be that intimidation and violence by any government against peaceful dissent will be met with strong disapproval by responsible nations. Everyone involved in this gruesome crime must be identified and held accountable. When the United States fails to lead, we compromise our integrity and abandon those pursuing justice around the world.”
Mr. Murphy said the law invoked by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee “isn’t an informal committee request.”
“The law requires that when the chairman and the ranking member of the Foreign Relations Committee ask the president to make a finding as to a human rights violation overseas, he has to respond,” Mr. Murphy said. “So [the president] doesn’t have an option here. Now, I understand why he doesn’t want to make this determination. His intelligence services are telling him that Mohammed bin Salman was responsible and, because either of a personal relationship he has or a business relationship he has with Saudi Arabia, he is declining to make that finding to Congress.”