UPDATE – Trump keen, Congress unswayed by Khashoggi explanation


By Michael Hernandez

WASHINGTON (AA) – U.S. President Donald Trump hailed as a "great first step" Friday Saudi Arabia's explanation for the fate of a missing Saudi journalist. Congress, however, was less enthusiastic.

Trump told reporters he thinks Saudi Arabia's explanation that Jamal Khashoggi died after a brawl inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul is credible, adding he does not think he has been lied to during conversations with Saudi Arabia's senior leaders.

"I think we're getting close to solving a very big problem," Trump said.

Saudi Arabia, the president said, "has been a great ally in the Middle East. We need them as a counterbalance to Iran, and so it's not the simplest solution. It's not the simplest situation to be in".

Preliminary investigations by the Saudi Public Prosecution Office into Khashoggi’s disappearance said he had gotten into a “quarrel and brawl” with people he met while in the consulate which led to his death, the state-run Saudi Press Agency said in a statement.

Eighteen Saudi citizens have been arrested over links to Khashoggi’s death, according to the news agency.

Those having such links will be held accountable and brought to justice, it added.

While Trump offered measured optimism about Riyadh's explanation, Capitol Hill was far less satisfied.

"To say that I am skeptical of the new Saudi narrative about Mr. Khashoggi is an understatement," Republican Senator Lindsay Graham said in a statement posted to Twitter. "It’s hard to find this latest 'explanation' as credible."

Graham has been one of the fiercest critics of Saudi Arabia on the Hill amid Khashoggi's disappearance and has warned he would pursue sanctions against the Kingdom while calling for Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman — who reports allege is responsible for a plot to kill Khashoggi — to step down.

Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal echoed Graham, saying on the microblogging site that Riyadh's "actions & explanations continue to defy credibility & common sense".

"No way should the world wait 30 days for a Saudi whitewash or cover up. U.S. must call for an international investigation that holds accountable all responsible—not just Crown Prince's fall guys."

In the House, Representative Ro Khanna — a long-time opponent of U.S. military support to Riyadh's bombing campaign in Yemen — said Washington's $110 billion arms sale to Riyadh "should be cancelled immediately".

"Our foreign policy needs to be oriented toward human rights, not making huge profits for defense contractors," he said.

Trump has continued to balk at suggestions that the U.S. halt arms sales to Riyadh, saying earlier Friday that doing so "would be very hurtful to this country" and adding after the Saudi explanation was made public he "would prefer we don't use as retribution cancelling $110 billion worth of work".

"The last thing I want to say is 'we're not gonna supply you with that,'" Trump said. "I'd rather find another solution."

Should Congress seek to end arms sales over the president's objections, Trump could veto the move if it passes, but he would risk an override by a two-thirds majority of lawmakers in each chamber — a scenario more likely if Democrats take either chamber in November's midterm elections. Republicans currently control the Senate and the House.

Also reacting to Riyadh's announcement, outgoing Republican Senator Bob Corker said Saudi Arabia's explanation for what happened to Khashoggi "continues to change with each passing day, so we should not assume their latest story holds water".

"They can undergo their own investigation, but the U.S. administration must make its own independent, credible determination of responsibility for Khashoggi’s murder under the Global Magnitsky investigation as required by law," he added in a separate tweet.

He was referring to an investigation he triggered earlier this month along with three other senators into Khashoggi's disappearance under a U.S. law intended to hold human rights abusers to account.

In a letter to Trump, the minority and majority leaders of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the leaders of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee responsible for the State Department called on Trump to determine whether imposing sanctions "with respect to any foreign person responsible for such a violation related to Mr. Khashoggi" is warranted.