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Lawmakers denounce Trump's backing of Saudis, despite Khashoggi killing

CBS News logo CBS News 11/20/2018 Camilo Montoya-Galvez
U.S. President Donald Trump welcomes Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, U.S. March 20, 2018. © REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst U.S. President Donald Trump welcomes Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, U.S. March 20, 2018.

The White House's pledge to maintain its strong military and economic alliance with Saudi Arabia amid reports that U.S. intelligence has assessed that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered the gruesome murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi, has ignited a flurry of bipartisan condemnation in Washington.  

After President Trump issued a remarkable statement on Tuesday in which he acknowledged that the heir apparent to the Saudi throne may have known about the "tragic event," but that his administration nevertheless "intended to remain a steadfast partner of Saudi Arabia," several Republican and Democratic members of Congress denounced the White House's position.

"I'm pretty sure this statement is Saudi Arabia First, not America First," Republican Sen. Rand Paul, an ally of the president but ardent critic of America's relationship with the Saudis, wrote on Twitter.

The lawmaker from Kentucky accused National Security Adviser and foreign policy hawk John Bolton of writing the statement and criticized American assistance to the Saudi-led coalition waging a bloody war against the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen. 

"We should, at the very least, NOT reward Saudi Arabia with our sophisticated armaments that they in turn use to bomb civilians," Paul added.

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., who has largely embraced the administration's doctrine across the world, wrote on Twitter that "our foreign policy must be about promoting our national interests." The junior senator from Florida stressed that defending human rights is vital to America's national security because human rights violations fuel "mass migration," foster extremism and benefit governments hostile to the U.S.

In a statement, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said the U.S. can't overlook Khashoggi's high-profile killing and alleged dismemberment, and suggested that there was bipartisan support among lawmakers to sanction individuals involved in the assassination, including members of the royal family.

"While Saudi Arabia is a strategic ally, the behavior of the Crown Prince – in multiple ways – has shown disrespect for the relationship and made him, in my view, beyond toxic," Graham added.  

Constant Trump critics Sen. Jeff Flake and Sen. Bob Corker also condemned the statement. The retiring senator from Arizona said "great allies" don't lure their own citizens into a trap, and then have them killed. 

"I never thought I'd see the day a White House would moonlight as a public relations firm for the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia," Corker, who is also retiring, wrote on Twitter. 

In his statement, President Trump touted Saudi Arabia's important role in America's national security apparatus and the billions of dollars he said the U.S has received in arms transactions with the royal family. He said U.S. intelligence agencies are still probing Khashoggi's murder. "Maybe he did and maybe he didn't!" President Trump said in a statement, referring to the possibility that the Saudi Crown Prince ordered the journalist's brutal killing.

Meanwhile, Democrats — who will have control of important House committees that could potentially investigate Khashoggi's assassination and the U.S.-Saudi alliance — were more scathing in their criticism and directly referenced the president.

"The President's failure to hold Saudi Arabia responsible in any meaningful way for the death of Jamal Khashoggi is just one more example of this White House's retreat from American leadership on issues like human rights and protecting the free press," the vice chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., said in a statement.

Although he said the government should always consider the U.S.' close cooperation with the oil-rich kingdom, Congressman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., accused President Trump of damaging America's "standing as a champion of human rights."

"To suggest 'maybe he did and maybe he didn't' or that we are incapable of finding out the truth, or that knowing the truth our silence can be bought with arms sales, undermines respect for the Office of the Presidency," Schiff said.

After labeling President Trump's response a "betrayal of long-established American values of respect for human rights," Fred Ryan, the publisher and CEO of the Washington Post, the newspaper for which Khashoggi penned opinion pieces, called on the administration to make the intelligence evidence on the murder public and urged Congress to act in the wake of "failure of leadership" from the White House.

"President Trump is correct in saying the world is a very dangerous place," Ryan said in a statement. "His surrender to this state-ordered murder will only make it more so. An innocent man, brutally slain, deserves better, as does the cause of truth and justice and human rights."

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