“I think he’s crazy.”
That’s how Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., described Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, after emerging from CIA Director Gina Haspel’s classified briefing to a select group of U.S. senators on Tuesday about the known details of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi’s October murder at a Saudi consulate in Turkey.
“There's not a smoking gun, there's a smoking saw," Graham told reporters. It was a direct rebuke of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, who has repeatedly said “there is no smoking gun” when asked about the murder.
Mattis’s talking point had already drawn fire from critics of the Trump administration and its refusal to retaliate against MbS over Khashoggi’s murder. On Tuesday, Graham and the other senators emerged from Haspel’s briefing convinced that MbS was at fault at some level, and that a punitive U.S. response against Saudi Arabia was warranted.
"If the crown prince went in front of a jury, he would be convicted in 30 minutes," Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., told Post intelligence reporter Shane Harris. The Associated Press quoted Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill.: “I went in believing the crown prince was directly responsible or at least complicit in this and my feelings were strengthened by the information we were given." Durbin and Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., want Haspel to brief the entire body. "Every senator should hear what I heard this afternoon,” Durbin said.
So what’s the Senate going to do about it? The quick take is that Haspel’s briefing sets up a showdown between the Senate and Trump. But really, it doesn’t. The senators may be disappointed, but Congress’s options are limited, even if either house can muster the votes for a punitive response. The U.S. security relationship with Saudi Arabia is firmly controlled by the executive branch. Mattis has bent over backward to avoid blaming MbS and the Saudis. There are U.S. troops across the region and Americans rely on Saudi support and intelligence and influence there. President Donald Trump has made it clear he considers the Saudi regime a crucial ally in the region, against terrorism and against Iran and its proxies.
Indeed, senior U.S. national security leaders appear nearly unanimous on this point, from Mattis and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to military leaders such as Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford and Central Command’s Gen. Joseph Votel. Trump has said repeatedly that nothing was going to change the U.S. relationship, unless it is proven what actually happened. The proof is now what the Congress and administration are fighting over.
So far, the Trump administration has tried to keep the public, and until Tuesday the United States Senate, from learning what the U.S. intelligence community knows about the murder. Trump refused senators’ requests to have Haspel brief the entire body. The administration ultimately bent to pressure and sent the nation’s top spy to brief only a select group of senators.
After Haspel’s briefing, Graham did not join Durbin in calls to brief the full Senate, saying that he now understood more clearly why the intelligence leaders wanted to limit the number of senators who were briefed. He gave no details.
“The CIA in my view rose to the occasion in terms of informing the Congress,” Graham said. “Saudi Arabia is a strategic ally and the relationship is worth saving, but not at all cost,” he said. “MbS, the crown prince, is a wrecking ball. I think he’s complicit in the murder of Mr. Khashoggi to the highest level possible.”
Here’s the bottom line: it’s one thing for Democrats to go up against Trump, whom they say is too cozy with the Saudi regime and too enamoured of arms sales. It’s another thing for Democrats to ignore Mattis, who increasingly is perceived as a Trump fall guy, at best, or sycophant, at worst, for parroting the president and executing orders of dubious military benefit, such as sending troops to the Mexican border.
It’s a wholly different thing for Republicans to side against Trump and Mattis, and today’s briefing may do more damage to the secretary’s credibility than anyone else’s. In essence, top senators with intelligence oversight just emerged to say they don’t believe Mattis or Trump. They believe Gina Haspel, and they’ve seen enough. It’s the most direct challenge to Mattis’s credibility since he joined Trump’s team. Beyond Mattis, top uniformed military leaders have tried to make their case that the U.S. is in Yemen for American interests, not Saudi Arabia’s. They’ve argued the U.S. is there to help keep Iran and Iranian missiles out of Yemen and pressure Houthis to negotiate an end to the fighting. In other words, to them, a vote to withdraw U.S. involvement in the Yemen conflict may hurt the U.S. more than the Saudis. They’re losing that argument to an important cadre of Congress’ leadership.
Last week, the administration tried, and failed, to convince the Senate to let diplomats do their work without pulling out the U.S military, and the leverage it gives the United States, the Saudis, and Yemen’s legitimate government against the Houthis and their Iranian patrons.
“We made clear that they’re considering debating a resolution on the Senate floor which we think is just poorly timed,” Pompeo said last week, after he and Mattis met with members of Congress. “We are on the cusp of allowing the U.S. envoy, Martin Griffiths, to, in December, gather the parties together and hopefully get a ceasefire in Yemen, something that we have diplomatically been striving for for months, and we think we’re right on the cusp of that.”
The Senate measure is a largely symbolic one. But if anything it would require members of Congress to go on the record and pick a side in the war — if they can figure out what side they’re voting for.
In the end, this is a low-risk fight for Congress to pick. Voting against Mattis sounds politically difficult. Voting against the Saudis does not. The Yemen war is unpopular, though good luck walking down any street and finding a dozen Americans who can explain it, much less articulate America’s interests in staying in or pulling out of it. In politics, you don’t need to.