Top Democrat Seeks New U.S. Penalties Against Saudi Arabia
Steven T. Dennis and Daniel Flatley. Bloomberg•February 6, 2019
(Bloomberg) — The top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee plans to escalate pressure on the Trump administration to act against Saudi Arabia over the killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, as a deadline nears for deciding whether to impose additional sanctions.
Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey is planning fresh legislation designed to impose a stronger U.S. response to the killing.
Menendez said Tuesday he’s acting after failing to receive a reply from the administration to a letter he and 21 other senators in both parties sent four months ago invoking the Magnitsky Act of 2016, which gave the Trump administration 120 days to make a decision on new sanctions related to the circumstances of Khashoggi’s murder in Saudi Arabia’s consulate in Istanbul.
“That’s why we’re going to be pursuing our Saudi Arabia-Yemen legislation shortly,” he said. Menendez added that he expects bipartisan support for the effort and said there’s frustration the administration hasn’t laid out any additional penalties against the kingdom.
The legislation will be an updated version of a measure Menendez sponsored last year, according to the senator’s spokesman. That bill sought to suspend weapons sales to the kingdom, block U.S. refueling of Saudi-coalition aircraft engaged in Yemen’s civil war and impose mandatory sanctions on those responsible for Khashoggi’s death.
The measure faces an uncertain fate in the GOP-controlled Senate, where lawmakers from both parties have expressed outrage over the killing but Republicans are often hesitant to buck President Donald Trump. The president has sought to emphasize the importance of the U.S. alliance with Saudi Arabia while questioning whether Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered Khashoggi killed.
The Trump administration has imposed sanctions on Saudis accused of involvement in the killing but has not specifically targeted Prince Mohammed. Menendez said the new legislation would include language specific to the crown prince.
The State Department has until Feb. 8th to respond to the senators’ letter and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee will wait to see what they do before deciding on a response, said a Republican committee aide familiar with the matter.
The State Department “shares with members of Congress a deep concern and outrage at the killing of Jamal Khashoggi,” a department spokesman said in a statement. The Treasury Department, working with the State and Justice Departments, already has announced sanctions on 17 individuals and “continues to seek all relevant facts,” the spokesman said.
The Senate in December adopted a non-binding resolution saying Prince Mohammed is responsible for Khashoggi’s murder. Top senators that month received a classified briefing from CIA Director Gina Haspel and said afterward they were certain the crown prince directed the killing and dismemberment of the Saudi insider-turned-critic.
Prince Mohammed remains “the chief suspect” in the killing of Khashoggi, an adviser to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said recently after meeting a United Nations representative probing the murder. Khashoggi, who was killed after criticizing the crown prince for his style of governance, entered the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2 but never left.
The Senate also voted in December to withdraw U.S. support for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen in the aftermath of Khashoggi’s killing. But the House — then under Republican control — didn’t take up the measure.
Republican Jim Risch of Idaho, the newly appointed Senate Foreign Relations chairman, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky were among those who opposed the Yemen resolution last year. Senators from both parties have also proposed halting arms sales to Saudi Arabia.