President Trump, Congress, and US-Saudi Relations: A Post-Election Assessment

On November 16, the Washington Post reported that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) had concluded, with “high confidence,” that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) directly ordered the operation to murder journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. This assessment is the most damning yet, as the ruling family in Riyadh and its supporters in the White House have held from the earliest days that the crown prince had no knowledge of the assassination, alleging it was planned by “rogue agents.”

To the disappointment of MbS and his backers in Washington, the mainstream media’s coverage of Khashoggi’s death and the resulting investigations into who was responsible has remained high, prolonging the calls for holding Riyadh accountable for the act. However, President Donald Trump and his administration remain committed to helping MbS survive the continuing public relations nightmare. Shortly after the CIA’s conclusion was revealed, the State Department—no doubt at the insistence of Secretary Mike Pompeo—released a statement clarifying that Washington had not “made a final conclusion” regarding who was responsible for the assassination. The willingness to help Riyadh, which this administration sees as a linchpin of US policy in the Middle East, goes all the way to the top. President Trump has publicly and repeatedly questioned reports that Mohammed bin Salman ordered Khashoggi’s murder, as was obvious in the last statement by the White House on November 20. Even worse, the president—as communicated by him and those around him—has made it clear that if the crown prince did order the brutal slaying of a journalist and legal US resident, this should not fundamentally alter US-Saudi relations. Trump repeatedly cites arms sales and economic ties as reasons, but on multiple occasions he has questioned why the murder of a journalist, who was not a US citizen, should dictate US policy, especially when the murder took place outside the United States.

President Trump has publicly and repeatedly questioned reports that Mohammed bin Salman ordered Khashoggi’s murder, as was obvious in the last statement by the White House on November 20.

Many members of the US Congress are taking a markedly different position. Lawmakers—Republican, Democrat, and Independent alike—are outraged about the murder, Riyadh’s brazen flouting of international norms, and the Trump Administration’s unfettered support for the young crown prince. As noted previously, a shift in power on Capitol Hill could be accompanied by a shift in US-Saudi relations; and now that the results of this month’s elections are apparent, it is crucial to reevaluate Congress’s positions vis-à-vis US-Saudi relations.

Controlling the House and Punishing Saudi Arabia

There was certainly bipartisan outrage over Jamal Khashoggi’s death. However, faced with a choice between punishing Riyadh and toeing President Trump’s line regarding US policy toward Saudi Arabia, the Republican-controlled House opted against holding the kingdom accountable; in fact, GOP leaders have repeatedly scrapped efforts to legislate against Riyadh. Things could change once the new Congress is seated in January 2019. The House of Representatives, soon to be controlled by the Democratic Party, will certainly try and adjust the US posture toward Riyadh—but this effort is not necessarily driven by Khashoggi’s death. Instead, Democrats have taken issue with the Trump Administration’s full-throated support for the Yemen war. The Saudi-led coalition’s war effort against Yemen’s Houthi rebels has gained many opponents as the costs of war have skyrocketed; and it has resulted in the death and injury of tens of thousands of lives and thrust millions into abject poverty and severe hunger and illness. Congressional Democrats, to a large extent, have used Khashoggi’s murder to illustrate what they believe to be the broader threat posed by Saudi Arabia: the irrationality and recklessness of its young crown prince.

Congressional Democrats have used Khashoggi’s murder to illustrate what they believe to be the broader threat posed by Saudi Arabia: the irrationality and recklessness of its young crown prince.

The gruesome murder of this prominent journalist who lived in the United States has provided opponents of the kingdom’s oppression and hegemonic ambitions the kind of relatable narrative to draw attention to Saudi Arabia’s other malign behavior, namely its war in Yemen. Rep. Ro Khanna (D-California) noted at a conference recently that because Khashoggi was a familiar writer and political analyst to many, his death opened people’s eyes to the dangerous policies of the Saudi regime—more so, Khanna lamented, than the deaths of thousands of Yemenis at the hands of the Saudis and their coalition. To the congressman’s point, every piece of legislation relating to US-Saudi relations that has been offered since reports of Khashoggi’s murder went public has sought to deprive Riyadh of US support in Yemen (see here, here, here, and other Washington Policy Weekly reports). This suggests that Democrats will harness popular outrage over Jamal Khashoggi’s murder to try and shift the status quo over Washington’s military relationship with the kingdom. It is all but certain that the Democratic majority in the House next year will propose—and likely adopt—legislation and/or resolutions condemning Riyadh and prohibiting US support for the latter’s military adventure in Yemen.

Tough Talk from Senators, but Little Might Change

For its part, the Senate is unlikely to pressure President Trump over the US-Saudi relationship. Barring a disastrous result for Republicans in Mississippi’s special election on November 27, the Senate’s GOP majority will remain 53 to 47, and the chamber has proven unwilling or unable to garner the votes necessary to significantly reorient the US posture toward Saudi Arabia. Despite the fiery rhetoric from Republicans like Bob Corker (Tennessee), Jeff Flake (Arizona), and Lindsey Graham (South Carolina), the status quo is likely to remain. President Trump has clearly illustrated that he has no intention of punishing MbS, whom his administration sees as the single most important Arab partner in the region; moreover, few Republicans even vocalize opposition to the president, never mind actually casting votes against his preferences. That situation only stands to worsen as sometime-critics Corker and Flake retire at year’s end and new Republicans like Marsha Blackburn (Tennessee), Rick Scott (Florida), Kevin Cramer (North Dakota), and others take their seats and lurch the upper chamber even further to the right ideologically, thus making the Senate even more deferential to President Trump.

With McConnell playing gatekeeper, it will likely prove impossible for any bill aimed at Saudi Arabia to become law. But this is not to say that senators are completely powerless.

Additionally, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) has retained his position and he has a distaste for the Senate passing any bill forcing the president’s hand. Indeed, McConnell has opposed every major effort—be it from his colleague from Kentucky, Rand Paul (R), or the multipartisan trio of Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont), Chris Murphy (D-Connecticut), and Mike Lee (R-Utah)—and, as his relationship with Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi suggests, he has no qualms about quashing bills targeting foreign leaders charged with genocide. With McConnell playing gatekeeper, it will likely prove impossible for any bill aimed at Saudi Arabia to become law. But this is not to say that senators are completely powerless. For example, the White House may eventually try to ignore a particular norm of governance where the president defers to senators when committee chairs or ranking members place a symbolic hold on arms sales. To that end, Trump could formally announce weapons sales to Saudi Arabia—over the objections of Robert Menendez (D-New Jersey), who placed a hold on those sales—in which case McConnell would be powerless to stop a vote of disapproval by the Senate.

The results of the 2018 midterm elections are somewhat contradictory: Democrats retook the House, making the chamber younger, more progressive, and perhaps more hostile to President Trump’s foreign policy. At the same time, the Senate actually grew more conservative with the ouster of three Democrats and an influx of hard-right newcomers. Democrats in the House will no doubt try to fundamentally change US-Saudi relations, making the relationship less unconditional. President Trump, however, likes MbS because he sees in him a strongman with whom he can do business. Unless a viable alternative gives Washington a different and more trustworthy partner in Riyadh, Republican senators are poised to side with Trump and undermine any legislative fixes the House might offer.

Marcus Montgomery is a Junior Analyst at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Marcus and read his previous publications click here