Congressional Update – Week Ending October 19, 2018

I. Congress

Both chambers are on recess until after November’s midterm elections, though both will meet in pro forma sessions throughout the break.

Jamal Khashoggi’s Case Continues to Roil Washington. US lawmakers of all political stripes continued airing their dissatisfaction with Saudi Arabia’s responses to accusations that top government officials orchestrated the disappearance and murder of the Saudi journalist and legal US resident, Jamal Khashoggi, at the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul, Turkey. Senators like Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont), Marco Rubio (R-Florida), and Jeff Flake (R-Arizona) took to the airwaves to issue warnings to Riyadh that it would face punishment for the reportedly gruesome murder. Senator Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) was the loudest proponent of cutting off working ties with Riyadh as long as Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman remained in his position of power. However, Graham’s recent remarks indicate that perhaps he will take a more deferential position toward the White House on the issue.

For his part, Sanders has vowed to reintroduce a resolution he championed months ago that would prohibit the US military from supporting the Saudi-led coalition’s war on Yemen. Many House members, Republican and Democrat alike, echoed these sentiments, calling for sanctions and other forms of punishment for Khashoggi’s assassination. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin) raised the prospect of levying sanctions on Riyadh, while co-chairman of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Massachusetts), introduced legislation this week (H.R. 7070) that would prohibit the United States from providing security assistance to the Saudis until the secretary of state can make a determination on the circumstances of Khashoggi’s murder.

Feeling some political pressure to address the assassination, President Donald Trump spoke Monday morning with the king of Saudi Arabia, Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, about the disappearance of Khashoggi. The phone call—just a day after Trump proclaimed in an NBC News “60 Minutes” interview that the Saudis “deny it [the assassination] vehemently”—was reportedly cordial and the king forcefully denied any wrongdoing. After first articulating stern words for the Saudis regarding the incident, the president has appeared very willing to circulate the Saudi government’s narrative of events. Moreover, as one report notes, Jared Kushner is helping craft the US response to Khashoggi’s murder—a development that will almost certainly soften the White House’s position since Kushner is close with the Saudi crown prince. This comes at the same time that an alleged audio tape of Khashoggi’s killing went public, undermining the already shaky Saudi explanation that the journalist died at the hands of an overzealous team of investigators in an interrogation gone awry.

In addition to managing the crisis from the White House, Trump dispatched Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to Riyadh to urge the royal family to take US concerns seriously and conduct a legitimate and transparent investigation. On the trip, Pompeo met with King Salman, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir. While sending Pompeo appeared to be the necessary diplomatic step for the administration in the absence of an ambassador in Riyadh, many critics noted the poor optics of the US Secretary of State posing and smiling with members of the ruling family who presumably either knew about or ordered the rendition and/or murder of Khashoggi. Additionally, observers consider it naïve for the secretary to have believed that Bin Salman would undertake a legitimate internal investigation. Seemingly satisfied with the way the ruling family was handling the investigation, Pompeo flew to Ankara, in part to meet with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoğlu about the Turkish investigation into the Khashoggi affair. Interestingly, there are reports that Turkish investigators have an audio recording of the gruesome murder inside the consulate, but the State Department went on the record to say Pompeo did not hear the recording or read any transcript of its contents—though it stopped short of denying such a recording exists.

When Pompeo returned to Washington, he met with the president and told reporters that he urged Trump to give the Saudis a few more days to investigate. In the meantime, Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin announced he would follow the lead of private businesses and foreign finance ministers and withdraw his planned visit to Saudi Arabia for the meeting dubbed “Davos in the Desert.” Lawmakers had called for Mnuchin to skip the conference for fear it would legitimize Saudi Arabia’s extrajudicial murder of a journalist, but it was not until late in the week that the secretary made the decision not to attend.

Saudi officials still face serious criticism in Washington, but at present the White House seems content with helping the Saudis with damage control. This could lead to a clash with lawmakers on Capitol Hill if they deem the administration’s potentially weak measures as insufficient for holding Riyadh responsible.

1) Personnel and Correspondence

Sen. Leahy Continues Hold on Egyptian Aid Package. After months of sanctions, the Turkish government finally released American Pastor Andrew Brunson, who had been held in prison for two years. In return, the Trump Administration is reportedly considering lifting some of the financial penalties it had imposed on Turkey—despite the continuing detention of additional Americans in the country. Sensing that financial pressure might have been a useful tool in securing Brunson’s release, Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) told reporters that he would maintain a hold on military aid to Egypt until it releases an American citizen it has imprisoned. Leahy, who can place a freeze on some funds due to his ranking member status on the Senate Appropriations Committee, is withholding $105 million of the $1.3 billion Egypt receives in aid every year.

Sen. Udall and Senate Democrats Want Information on Trump-Saudi Business Ties. Senator Tom Udall (D-New Mexico) and 10 of his Democratic Senate colleagues wrote to President Trump this week demanding information about any possible financial ties between himself or his businesses and officials of Saudi Arabia. Citing the investigation requirements triggered by the Magnitsky Act, the senators are asking the president to deliver, by mid-November, any information regarding business interests with Saudi nationals or business entities.

II. Executive Branch

1) State Department

Deputy Secretary of State Visits Bahrain, Iraq. Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan traveled to the region over the last week, first visiting Bahrain then meeting with outgoing Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and with the Iraqi Prime Minister-designate and his newly elected counterparts in the president’s and speaker of parliament’s offices in Baghdad. He also visited with Kurdish Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani in Erbil. Sullivan and a delegation of US diplomatic and military personnel also held meetings in Baghdad with religious leaders to discuss current sectarian tensions in Iraq.

During the US officials’ visits, the State Department announced that Washington would be allocating $178 million to further aid the vulnerable ethnic and religious minority communities that have suffered from years of fighting in Iraq.

Ambassador Jeffrey Visits Turkey to Discuss Situation in Syria. The Special Representative for Syria Engagement, Ambassador James Jeffrey, was in Ankara this week to hold conversations with Turkish officials regarding their cooperation in efforts to de-conflict areas in Syria where some opposition groups are still resisting the Assad regime. In addition, he noted that per a Turkish and Russian agreement, most of the heavy weaponry around Idlib seems to have been withdrawn. Moving forward, Jeffrey noted that there are some differences between Washington and Turkey on how to move, namely that the Turks are reluctant to end their support for the armed opposition fighting the Assad regime. There are continuing tensions between Washington and Ankara about the former’s support for the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG).

Jeffrey also spoke at length about efforts led by the international community, mainly under the direction of UN Special Representative Staffan de Mistura. However, de Mistura said this week that he will be stepping down from his post in November, illustrating frustration with the reluctance of many actors in Syria to engage in meaningful political negotiations to end the fighting.

Ambassador Friedman Visits Settlement in the Occupied West Bank. This week, US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman paid a visit to an Israeli settlement in the occupied West Bank. It is unusual—indeed, unprecedented—for an ambassador to visit settlements in his official capacity; the international community largely considers Israeli settlements illegal and views them as obstacles to securing a Palestinian state. The purpose of the visit, according to Friedman, was to meet with the settlement’s Chamber of Commerce and discuss ways for Israelis and Palestinians to develop economic ties. Friedman’s decision to talk about business development and cooperation in an Israeli settlement makes for awkward optics, however, since so many of the privileges that settlers have in order to sustain successful economies are denied to the Palestinians of the occupied West Bank (like building permits, transportation infrastructure, etc.). Later in the week, Secretary Mike Pompeo released a statement explaining his intent to start the process of merging operations of the existing US embassy and the consulate in East Jerusalem into one and conducting business out of one facility in Jerusalem. Pompeo said the move was an effort to more efficiently manage US diplomacy and was not supposed to be construed as a change in US policy toward the Israeli and Palestinian conflict. However, the decision will shutter the consulate that has traditionally been responsible for assisting Palestinians with their consular needs.

Pompeo Pens Op-Ed About Confronting Iran. Although overshadowed by the coverage of Pompeo’s seemingly unproductive visit to Riyadh, an op-ed this week the secretary wrote reiterated the administration’s efforts to confront Iran. Pompeo took to the pages of Foreign Affairs to outline the Trump Doctrine of diplomacy while listing many of the same talking points he has discussed on multiple occasions. He wrote about the malign Iranian behaviors, both domestically and internationally, that observers have already conceded are problematic. Ultimately, Pompeo’s piece seemed to be akin to a call to arms, trying to get the support of Americans and the international community; indeed, the toughest round of sanctions since the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action was signed are set to be reinstated in early November. Despite the facts in this op-ed, it could prove to ring hollow at a time when Pompeo has been the face of a controversial US effort to excuse Iran’s foe, Saudi Arabia, from its gross violations of human rights and blatant disregard for international norms.

2) Defense Department

Gen. Dunford Talks Countering Violent Extremism. On October 16, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford spoke at an event that explored ways for countering violent extremism. Dunford raised alarms about the resilience of groups like al-Qaeda and the so-called Islamic State (IS), even as US-led coalition forces continue to deprive the latter from its territorial holds in Syria, near the Iraqi border. Dunford expressed concern that the defense officials at the conference were not doing enough to help address the problem that groups like IS pose; 80 of his colleagues responded by committing to doing more to address the problem.

3) Treasury Department

Treasury Sanctions Iranian Entities Ahead of November’s Penalties. The Treasury Department announced this week that it would be levying new sanctions against an arm of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) known as the Basij, as well as Iranian entities that help finance the group. The Basij’s major transgression is its support for the IRGC’s Quds Force, which itself has already been sanctioned. The IRGC arm also aids in recruiting and training child soldiers. In addition to the new sanctions on Iranians, Treasury targeted an Iraqi-based money services company it accuses of facilitating financing for IS.

4) Justice Department

Justice Department Task Force to Target Hezbollah in Latin America. This week, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that the Department of Justice would be forming a task force dedicated to disrupting the operations of transnational criminal organizations. Traditionally, efforts like this have focused on Latin American drug cartels that have deep webs of drug and weapons smuggling into the United States and whose stateside affiliates have been accused of carrying out acts of violence to protect their enterprises. Interestingly, Lebanon’s Hezbollah was lumped into the group because, as some reports suggest, there are Hezbollah cells in South America that use funds from illicit activities like drug trafficking to help finance the organization.