Bob Corker (R-TN) has just a few weeks left as a United States senator, and he’s determined to use that time to deliver one final rebuke to President Donald Trump.
Corker, the chairman of the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is cobbling together a coalition of Republicans and Democrats in an attempt to force the Trump administration to do something that would undermine a key tenet of its foreign policy: acknowledge that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was complicit in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
“I know he did it. I want him to be named,” a defiant Corker told The Daily Beast on Thursday, later adding: “I’d like to do something that actually has teeth.”
The crown prince’s culpability has been obvious to lawmakers who have been briefed on U.S. intelligence assessments. But such an unequivocal declaration of the crown prince’s involvement would be consequential for an administration that has invested so much political capital into its relationship with the 33-year-old de facto leader.
If successful, Corker’s crusade would amount to one of Congress’ strongest admonitions of the president, who has openly doubted intelligence assessments that, according to lawmakers briefed on the matter by the CIA, prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the crown prince was directly involved in the brutal assassination and dismemberment of Khashoggi as well as the clumsy cover-up that followed.
Corker’s efforts are facing stiff resistance from Trump, who according to lawmakers has not acted to hold the crown prince accountable. Trump, Defense Secretary James Mattis, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have asserted that there is no “direct evidence” linking the crown prince to the murder, and they have opposed congressional efforts to halt U.S.-Saudi cooperation on a host of issues relating to national security and counterterrorism.
On Thursday, Corker escalated the conflict, saying Trump’s refusal to outwardly condemn the crown prince was “un-American.”
The Tennessee Republican convened a meeting of GOP and Democratic senators Thursday morning in an effort to hammer out a proposal that could win enough votes in both chambers and make it impossible for Trump to block their plan to force him to officially call out the crown prince.
Corker’s actions come after CIA Director Gina Haspel briefed top senators earlier this week on U.S. intelligence assessments about the murder of Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist and a critic of the Saudi regime. Corker and other lawmakers said the briefing confirmed their view that there was “no question” the crown prince was directly involved in the killing.
Despite Corker’s adversarial relationship with Trump, lawmakers working with him say he’s not trying to spite the president or cement a legacy of his own; rather, they say, he wants to hold Saudi Arabia accountable in a way that the Trump administration has not.
“I think Bob is trying to find the right way to land a correction on Saudi policy that gets as many votes as possible. I don’t think that’s about his legacy,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT), who joined the Thursday meeting with Corker, told The Daily Beast. “I think that’s just because he thinks, on this one, the president has gone fully off the rails and Congress needs to correct [it].”
The close cooperation with Saudi Arabia has been the linchpin of the Trump administration’s Middle East policies. The White House has placed a strong focus on countering Iran’s influence in the region, and it views Saudi Arabia as a noble partner in that effort. But last week, Corker and 13 other Republicans joined all Democrats in voting to advance a measure that would cut off U.S. support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, which is fighting against Iran-backed Houthi rebels. The conflict has ballooned into a humanitarian crisis, and an estimated 85,000 children have died of starvation.
Republicans hoped the vote would be a wake-up call to the White House and would force the president to punish Saudi Arabia over the killing of Khashoggi. But the White House hasn’t budged, and the Senate is preparing to push back with Corker as its ringleader.
“[Trump’s] Saudi policy is just off the rails in a way that almost no other piece of his foreign policy is. On this one, there are no Republicans that are really willing to argue his case here as they may be on some other aspects of foreign policy,” Murphy said.
One of the potential measures—the resolution that would end U.S. involvement in Yemen—is expected to get a full Senate vote sometime next week. Corker doesn’t plan to support that bill; instead, he’ll likely support an amended version of a separate measure that represents even more of a gut-punch to the Saudi regime and, ultimately, to Trump’s entire Middle East strategy.
That bill, written by Sens. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) and Todd Young (R-IN), would suspend all U.S. weapons sales to Saudi Arabia and would sanction entities blocking humanitarian assistance in Yemen or supporting the Iran-backed Houthi rebels. It would also require the Trump administration to enact mandatory human-rights sanctions on the individuals it determines are responsible for Khashoggi’s murder.
Corker told The Daily Beast that he is hesitant to make those sanctions mandatory because he believes it would give the White House an “out” to not formally name the crown prince as the perpetrator if the president knew that such a declaration would lead to sanctions. He’s seeking to amend the Menendez-Young bill such that it would give Trump zero wiggle-room on naming the Saudi leader.
“We might be better off with permissive sanctions where they name [the crown prince],” Corker said. “Wouldn’t you rather him be named? The first thing is, I want them to name him. That itself has repercussions.”
“We know Putin has done stuff, but we don’t sanction him personally, right?” he added. “We sanction the country. So if it’s mandatory that they sanction him, then the hammer’s so heavy, the outcome would have such an effect, that they would figure out some way not to name him.”
Menendez, the chief sponsor of that bill, told The Daily Beast that the mandatory sanctions are his “holy grail,” but he appeared willing to budge on that provision if it meant the Trump administration was more likely to officially say the crown prince was complicit.
Both sides said they hope these relatively minor disagreements won’t prevent the Senate from, at the very least, adopting a separate resolution declaring in part that the Senate believes the crown prince was complicit in the murder of Khashoggi.
But Corker is aiming for something bigger, and Democrats are more than willing to play ball.