President Donald Trump will not be forced to publicly decide whether to formally condemn Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for the killing of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi—and he has House Republicans to thank.
Last month, the Senate unanimously approved a joint resolution of Congress declaring the crown prince “responsible” for the murder of Khashoggi, a legal U.S. resident and Washington Post columnist. The vote represented a firm rebuke of the Trump administration’s response to Khashoggi’s murder, and senators from both parties said the effort was a broader condemnation of the president’s continued alignment with the Saudi crown prince.
But the House will not bring it up for a vote before the 115th Congress officially ends at noon on Thursday, a decision that saves Trump from making a declaration that would upend his administration’s close relationship with Saudi Arabia.
“I think [House Republicans] have decided that while they probably like the sentiment of it, they probably don’t want to—I’m sure the president has called over and asked not to be embarrassed by something that makes it to his desk,” Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN), the lead author of the proposal, told The Daily Beast before lawmakers left town for Christmas.
The Senate-passed effort was a joint resolution, which requires a presidential signature. If the House had passed the measure, it would have put Trump in an uncomfortable position. In the aftermath of Khashoggi’s death, the president stood by Saudi Arabia and the crown prince, openly questioning the CIA’s reported conclusion that the de facto Saudi leader ordered the operation to kill Khashoggi. He has also propped up Riyadh’s denials, despite the Saudi government’s shifting storyline about what exactly happened to Khashoggi in the days and weeks following his disappearance.
After the Senate adopted the joint resolution, Corker told reporters he had spoken with House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) and was “optimistic” that the measure could advance to the president’s desk. But Senate offices that led the effort told The Daily Beast that they had not heard from House leaders as lawmakers were preparing to leave town last month. A representative for House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) did not respond to inquiries about the status of the resolution, while Ryan spokeswoman AshLee Strong said there was “no update” on the floor schedule.
But by Wednesday afternoon, the fate of the joint resolution was all but sealed when House leaders announced that “no further votes” were expected “for the remainder of the 115th Congress.” Senators who pushed the resolution were aiming to force Trump to name the crown prince as being complicit in the murder of Khashoggi, a declaration that would undermine key tenets of the Trump administration’s foreign policy.
Corker, whose tenure in the Senate ends Thursday, has been intensely critical of Trump, in particular his warmness toward Saudi Arabia. Although the resolution had the support of some of Trump’s key Capitol Hill allies, notably Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), McCarthy had little political incentive to bring up the joint resolution and force Trump into a corner over a vexing foreign policy issue.
“He has two choices,” a senior GOP aide observed. “He could get the House to pass it and it goes to the president, where it will then be vetoed. Or he can just table it, sideline it, and nothing happens, and effectively the result is the same. So the whole resolution goes nowhere. The difference is, if he does get the House to pass it, he gets the ire of the president with no political benefits.”
It’s the second time the House blocked a Senate-passed rebuke of the Trump administration’s policy toward Saudi Arabia. Last month, House Republicans slipped a rule change into the annual farm bill that halted a Senate-passed resolution to end U.S. support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen’s devastating civil war. That vote, too, was successful due to bipartisan outrage over the Trump administration’s response to the Khashoggi murder, in addition to the urgent humanitarian crises on the ground in Yemen.
In the aftermath of Khashoggi’s murder, which took place in October inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, the Trump administration has given a vastly different public account than the one outlined to members of Congress by senior intelligence officials.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said there was “no direct evidence” linking the crown prince to the murder of Khashoggi, but Corker, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said after a series of classified briefings on the matter that the crown prince “would be convicted of murder in about 30 minutes” if he were in front of a jury.
The president’s reluctance to directly blame the crown prince and his willingness to believe Saudi Arabia’s denials underscore the deep ties between Washington and Riyadh that have been cultivated under the Trump presidency. Trump has placed a significant amount of political capital in his relationship with the crown prince, and has pledged to continue U.S.-Saudi cooperation on a host of issues, including fighting terrorism and countering Iran’s influence in the region. He has also promised to continue selling U.S. arms to Saudi Arabia, although the Senate has the authority to nix future weapons sales.
“They have been a great ally in our very important fight against Iran. The United States intends to remain a steadfast partner of Saudi Arabia to ensure the interests of our country, Israel and all other partners in the region,” Trump said in November, adding: “King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman vigorously deny any knowledge of the planning or execution of the murder of Mr. Khashoggi.”