WASHINGTON: The Trump administration signalled on Friday it might not meet a deadline to report to Congress on whether it intended to impose sanctions on anyone responsible for the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, prompting an angry backlash on Capitol Hill.
Congressional leaders triggered the Magnitsky Act in October, giving the administration 120 days, until Feb. 8, to report back on who was responsible for the death of Khashoggi, a US resident killed at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, and whether it would impose sanctions on that person or persons.
Congressional aides said they had not received a report by mid-afternoon. Some aides said they still hoped to receive it by early next week if not on Friday, but the administration said it did not feel the need to send one.
“The President maintains his discretion to decline to act on congressional committee requests when appropriate,” a senior administration official said in an emailed statement. “The US Government will continue to consult with Congress and work to hold accountable those responsible for Jamal Khashoggi’s killing.”
The New York Times reported on Thursday that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said he would use “a bullet” on Khashoggi if he did not return home and end his criticism of the government.
Saudi Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Adel al-Jubeir told reporters on Friday the prince did not order Khashoggi’s killing but declined comment on the Times story.
Al-Jubeir said he wanted Congress to let the Saudi legal process conclude before taking any action on sanctions. “There is no need for taking steps like this because … we are doing what we need to do in terms of acknowledging the mistake, investigating, charging and holding people accountable,” he said.
Al-Jubeir said he believed some of the congressional criticism was “driven by politics.”
The law is clear
Juan Pachon, a spokesman for Senator Bob Menendez, the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, said Trump was breaking the law by failing to send the report.
“The law is clear,” Pachon said. “It requires a determination and report in response to the letter we sent with (former Foreign Relations Chairman Bob) Corker. The president has no discretion here. He’s either complying with the law or breaking it.”
Members of Congress, including many of Trump’s fellow Republicans as well as Democrats, have clamored for a strong response to Khashoggi’s murder as well as the humanitarian crisis in Yemen, where a Saudi-led coalition is fighting Iran-backed Houthi rebels.
Ahead of the deadline, a group of Republican and Democratic senators on Thursday renewed their push to penalize Saudi Arabia, unveiling legislation to bar some arms sales and impose sanctions on those responsible for Khashoggi’s death.
Trump has resisted such legislative efforts, viewing weapons sales as an important source of US jobs and standing by the Saudi crown prince. He is also reluctant to disturb the strategic relationship with the kingdom, seen as an important regional counterbalance to Iran.
Senator Jim Risch, the Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said he expected more legislation would be introduced.
Risch also said Secretary of State Mike Pompeo wrote to him on Friday, describing the Trump administration’s past sanctions and adding that he expected “a more detailed briefing” later.
The United States imposed economic sanctions on 17 Saudi officials – not including the crown prince – in November for their role in Khashoggi’s killing.
A State Department spokesperson confirmed that Pompeo had provided an update to members of Congress on Friday, but did not give details on what he said.
After receiving Pompeo’s letter, Senator Menendez said: “I am very disappointed that the response from Secretary Pompeo doesn’t come close to fulfilling the statutory mandate and demonstrates what the administration has wanted all along – the Khashoggi murder to be forgotten.”