President Donald Trump’s embrace of Saudi Arabia has exposed a foreign policy rift in the Republican Party, as some of his GOP colleagues warn that not punishing the kingdom for its role in killing a U.S.-based columnist will have dangerous consequences.
Many Republicans — even Sens. Lindsey Graham and Rand Paul, who share their views on the matter with the president — have denounced Trump’s decision not to levy harsher penalties on Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman over the death and dismemberment of Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul.
Sen. Bob Corker, the Republican chairman of the influential Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said Wednesday he was “astounded” by Trump’s statement and likened it to a press release for Saudi Arabia.
“It is a delicate situation when we have a long-term ally that we’ve had for decades, but we have a crown prince that I believe ordered the killing of a journalist,” Corker told Chattanooga TV station WTVC in his home state of Tennessee. “We don’t have a smoking gun. Everything points to the fact that he knew about it and directed it.”
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo defended Trump’s decision, saying the U.S. has already placed sanctions on 17 Saudi officials suspected of involvement in the Oct. 2 killing of The Washington Post columnist, who had been critical of the royal family.
“We’ve sanctioned 17 people — some of them very senior in the Saudi government,” Pompeo said Wednesday in a radio interview with KCMO in Kansas City, Missouri. “We are going to make sure that America always stands for human rights.”
Graham, R-S.C., isn’t convinced. “When we lose our moral voice, we lose our strongest asset,” he said.
In his statement Tuesday, Trump argued that punishing Saudi Arabia by “foolishly canceling” Saudi arms deals worth billions of dollars to the U.S. would only benefit Russia and China. Critics, including high-ranking officials in other countries, accused Trump of ignoring human rights and giving Saudi Arabia a pass for economic reasons.
It’s “America First,” Trump said.
That unleashed a tweet Wednesday from Democratic Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii who wrote: “Being Saudi Arabia’s bitch is not ‘America First.'”
Trump also said the U.S. needs Saudi Arabia’s help to counter Iran in the region, fight extremism and keep oil prices steady. The U.S., Russia and the Saudis have boosted oil production in anticipation of sharply lower exports from Iran due to U.S. sanctions reinstated after Trump exited the Iran nuclear deal.
Trump publicly thanked Saudi Arabia on Wednesday for plunging oil prices. However, OPEC, the cartel of oil-producing countries, could announce production cuts at its Dec. 6 meeting in Vienna, nudging prices upward.