The extent and severity of the U.S. response to the apparent murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi at the hands of a Saudi death squad could trigger a major conflict between Congress and the White House — possibly even leading the legislative branch to reassert its constitutional role for the first time since Trump’s rise to power
That Saudi Arabia could become the flashpoint for a congressional rebellion would have seemed highly unlikely a few years ago. The Kingdom has long financed a vast, costly and highly effective influence-peddling network in Washington, which was kicked up a notch in 2015. And Members of Congress have been trained to see cutting off military sales to any country as a political third rail after massive defense-industry spending on lobbyists and the distribution of defense facilities into as many congressional districts as possible.
But the apparently brutal, calculated murder of a U.S. resident who was a dissident Saudi journalist – after entering a Saudi consulate in Turkey to obtain papers in order to marry his fiancée – has turned even stalwart congressional Saudi hawks into horrified critics.
It also comes after a number of bold -– though widely ignored — congressional votes that came surprisingly close to demanding that Trump end support for the Saudi-led coalition bombing of Yemen, which has generated seemingly unending images of civilian victims and has created arguably the greatest humanitarian crisis in the world.
Trump shows no signs of being shaken loose from his tight embrace with the Saudis, which has included reveling in the “royal treatment” during his visit to Riyadh last May and a lovefest with Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman during the heir apparent’s PR charm offensive in the United States six months ago.
Although Trump was willing to mock the Saudis for cheap laughs at political rallies earlier this month, he and his son-in law Jared Kushner have long seen the Saudis as their greatest friends in the region, along with Israel.
Trump has effectively ruled out cutting arms sales, and continues to describe his relationship with the royal family as “excellent”. And in comments to the press yesterday, Trump expressed contentment that King Salman had “firmly denied any knowledge” of the murder, then put forth a ludicrous, evidence-free conspiracy theory intended to deflect the blame from the royal family, saying perhaps “rogue killers” were involved. “Who knows?”
Nevertheless, Trump said in a “60 Minutes” interview broadcast on Sunday that “We’re going to get to the bottom of it and there will be severe punishment.” So if and when the Saudi leadership is definitively identified as responsible, Congress can use that pledge as a blunt instrument to beat on Trump – if it chooses to.
Still, the easiest and best way to show some Congressional spine would be to keep moving forward on the earlier attempts to end U.S. support for the unconscionable Saudi-led bombing campaign that is killing civilians in Yemen.
Even more than insisting on punishment for the Khashoggi murder, demanding an end to that support would effectively seize back Congress’s core, constitutional powers from the president — in this case, the power to declare war. Congress has ceded vast amounts of its constitutionally-mandated authority to the executive branch, particularly since the 9/11 terror attacks. And despite Trump’s obvious instability, it hasn’t reasserted itself in any way.
Most importantly, ending U.S. support to the coalition could also save the lives of countless civilian victims who would otherwise continue to be blown up by U.S. bombs in a largely ignored war
The House, in November of last year, overwhelmingly passed (336 to 30) a resolution stating that Congress had not authorized U.S. military assistance in Yemen. It was admittedly a far cry from the original resolution demanding and end to the assistance, but the margin was significant. And this past February, after Senators Mike Lee (Republican), Bernie Sanders (independent) and Chris Murphy (Democrat) demanded a vote on ending military support, they came up only six votes short. Five Republicans supported the bill, with 10 Democrats opposed.
“I think one of the strong things that we can do is not only stop military sales, not only put sanctions on Saudi Arabia, but most importantly, get out of this terrible, terrible war in Yemen led by the Saudis,” Sanders said on Sunday.
And now you have unexpected voices like South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham’s talking about how he intends to “sanction the hell out of Saudi Arabia.” Similarly, Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio called for end to “business as usual” on Sunday. “No matter how important they might be to our Iranian strategy, our ability to be a voice for human rights … is undermined and compromised if we are not willing to confront something as atrocious as what’s allegedly happened here,” he said.
A powerful bipartisan group of senators already took unprecedented action to force Trump’s hand last week. In a letter, 22 members of the Senate including the leaders of the Foreign Relations Committee triggered a provision of the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act of 2016, asserting a “gross violation of internationally recognized human rights against an individual exercising freedom of expression.” That means Trump must respond within 120 days with a classified or unclassified report that determines who was responsible, and says what he intends to do about it.
The congressional clock is ticking faster than that — but action is hardly guaranteed. There’s a reason the modern Congress’s approval rating is so low: It rarely fails to disappoint.