WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Senior members of President Donald Trump’s Cabinet urged U.S. senators on Wednesday not to downgrade ties with Saudi Arabia over the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, saying it would harm national security and threaten Middle East stability.
After repeated calls from members of Congress for a strong U.S. response, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis briefed the Senate behind closed doors about Saudi Arabia and the October 2 murder of Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, and on the war in Yemen.
Pompeo acknowledged to the lawmakers that the Yemen conflict has taken a terrible toll on civilians, but argued that Saudi Arabia provides an important counterweight to Iran in the region.
“More broadly, degrading ties with Saudi Arabia would be a grave mistake for U.S. national security, and that of our allies,” Pompeo said in his prepared remarks to the Senate. “The Kingdom is a powerful force for stability in an otherwise fraught Middle East.”
Pompeo told reporters after the briefing that there was no direct evidence connecting Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to Khashoggi’s murder. Mattis later told reporters at the Pentagon, “there is no smoking gun.”
However, Pompeo and Mattis did not seem to sway leading Senate foreign policy voices, including some of Trump’s fellow Republicans, who said they believed taking no action would send a more dangerous message to the world.
Republican Senator Bob Corker, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said after the briefing it was apparent to everyone in the room that the crown prince was responsible for Khashoggi’s death.
“We have a problem here. We understand that Saudi Arabia is an ally, of sorts, and a semi important country,” Corker said. “… We also have a crown prince that’s out of control.”
Corker warned that Congress would act if the administration does not. “I think 80 percent of the people left the hearing this morning not feeling like an appropriate response has been forthcoming,” Corker said.
The Senate considering a resolution later on Wednesday that would stop U.S. refueling and other support for the Saudi-led campaign in Yemen.
Senator Bob Menendez, the committee’s top Democrat, said Washington was basically telling an ally “you can kill with impunity.”
“It is outrageous that we are willing to turn our eye away from such a murder because we have ‘interests,'” Menendez said.
Trump has dismissed a CIA assessment that the crown prince ordered Khashoggi’s killing. He vowed last week to remain a “steadfast partner” of Saudi Arabia and said it was not clear whether the prince knew about the plan to kill Khashoggi.
Those comments further angered members of Congress who have demanded an investigation of potential involvement by the crown prince.
Many were angry that CIA Director Gina Haspel did not participate in the briefing, as they had requested.
Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, who has been one of Trump’s closest congressional allies, said he wants to know whether the CIA assessment supports his belief that the killing could not have happened without the prince’s knowledge.
Graham said he would withhold his vote on any key issue, including must-pass spending bills, until the CIA briefs senators about Khashoggi’s killing.
When asked if he had told Trump as much, Graham said, “I just did.”
Gulf Arab states have been battling in Yemen since 2015 to restore a government driven out by the Houthis, Shi’ite Muslim fighters that Yemen’s neighbors view as agents of Iran. The war has killed more than 10,000 people and created the world’s most urgent humanitarian emergency.
Pompeo said the United States would provide an additional $131 million for food aide in Yemen.
Mattis said pulling back U.S. military support in Yemen and stopping weapons sales to important partners would be misguided.
“Our security interests cannot be dismissed,” Mattis said, even as Washington seeks accountability for Khashoggi’s murder, a crime which “our country does not condone.”
Pompeo made the case that the Saudis are too important an ally to lose, citing the country’s help in containing Iran in the region, securing democracy in Iraq and fighting the Islamic State and other militant groups.
The Yemen conflict is seen as a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
“This conflict isn’t optional for Saudi Arabia, and abandoning it puts American interests at risk too,” Pompeo said.
Pompeo also made comments that frustrated some of the administration’s allies, saying in a blog post before the Senate briefing that Khashoggi’s killing “has heightened the Capitol Hill caterwauling and media pile-on.”