A senior Republican senator on Sunday said he believed the Saudi crown prince was responsible for the killing of Jamal Khashoggi and that the US had intelligence suggesting “very high-level” involvement.
Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee said Mohammed bin Salman had “crossed a line” by apparently overseeing the death of Khashoggi, a dissident journalist, and that “there has to be a punishment and a price to pay” for doing so.
The Saudi foreign minister, Adel al-Jubeir, put it differently, saying the Washington Post columnist was murdered in a “rogue operation”. Al-Jubeir told Fox News: “The individuals did this out of the scope of their authority.” He claimed Bin Salman had no involvement and that the killers were not closely tied to the prince, despite convincing reports to the contrary.
“If he did it then I think there should be a collective response,” Corker said on CNN’s State of the Union, suggesting that the US, UK and other leading powers would target Bin Salman personally with economic sanctions.
After two weeks of contradictory statements, the Saudi government claimed late on Friday that Khashoggi was strangled after a fist fight broke out between him and officials on 2 October at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Five officials, including a senior intelligence officer, were said to have been fired and 18 others arrested.
But Corker, the chairman of the Senate foreign relations committee, appeared to confirm media reports that US intelligence agencies intercepted communications indicating that higher-powered Saudi officials were involved in the killing.
“We obviously have intercepts from the past that point to involvement at a very high level,” Corker said.
Other Republicans echoed Corker. Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky told Fox News on Sunday: “I’m certain the crown prince was involved and directed this. I think he will have to be replaced. I don’t think sanctions go far enough.”
Turkish officials have told reporters audio recordings show Khashoggi was brutally killed by a team of men sent from Saudi Arabia. Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, said on Sunday he would announce official findings on the case on Tuesday.
Corker spoke soon after Donald Trump acknowledged for the first time that Saudi officials had made false statements about Khashoggi’s killing.
“Obviously there’s been deception, and there’s been lies,” the president told the Washington Post in an interview late on Saturday.
Trump, though, stopped short of blaming Bin Salman, saying he would “would love if he wasn’t responsible”. He continued to stress a desire not to disrupt US-Saudi strategic cooperation in the Middle East or jeopardise US arms sales to the kingdom.
The president reportedly lamented to the Post that “we’ve got nobody else over there” to help protect Israel. His treasury secretary, Steven Mnuchin, is scheduled to visit Riyadh on Tuesday for talks with Saudi officials on Iran and on countering the financing of terrorism. Mnuchin has, however, withdrawn from the so-called “Davos in the desert” conference that is being shunned by many US executives and media companies following Khashoggi’s death.
Other members of Congress appeared generally sceptical of the Saudi explanation on Sunday and continued to add pressure on the Trump administration to respond more robustly.
Dick Durbin, a Democratic senator from Illinois, said Salman’s “fingerprints are all over” Khashoggi’s death and that the US should immediately eject his younger brother, Khaled bin Salman, who is the kingdom’s envoy to Washington.
“We ought to expel, formally expel, the Saudi ambassador from the United States until there as a completion of a third-party instigation into this kidnap, murder and god-knows what followed,” Durbin told NBC’s Meet The Press.
Thom Tillis, a Republican senator from North Carolina, indicated that he and others in Congress expected investigations to lead to the crown prince’s door and that the conclusion would be “very problematic” for US-Saudi relations.
“In Saudi Arabia, you don’t do something of this magnitude without having clearance from the top. We need to find out who that is and hold them accountable,” said Tillis.
Ben Sasse of Nebraska said the Saudi government had offered “a whole bunch of crap that’s not right, accurate, or true”.
“You don’t bring a bone saw to an accidental fistfight,” the senator told CNN, referring to a detail leaked by Turkish officials about the alleged dismemberment of Khashoggi’s body.
Trump defended his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who has been blamed by some for hindering the US response due to his close relationship with the prince.
“They’re two young guys,” said Trump. “Jared doesn’t know him well or anything. They are just two young people. They are the same age. They like each other I believe.”
Having appeared to give cover to Saudi dissembling over the killing, Trump in his interview on Saturday insisted that he would not stand in the way of the truth about Khashoggi’s death being established.
“I am not satisfied until we find the answer,” he said. “But it was a big first step, it was a good first step. But I want to get to the answer.”