After a closed-door briefing with senators Wednesday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo once again defended the Trump administration’s response to the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, saying there is “no direct reporting” connecting Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to the killing.
Pompeo and Defense Secretary James Mattis traveled to Capitol Hill for a briefing with Senate lawmakers on Yemen where they emphasized the strategic importance of the US-Saudi relationship and defended the administration’s response to the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
The purpose of Wednesday’s briefing was to outline the US role in Yemen — a briefing that has taken on added importance as momentum has grown behind a resolution to cut off US military aid to Saudi Arabia over its role in the brutal civil war in the country.
At least in part, the briefing was designed to push back against the resolution, which the Trump administration opposes.
Senators from both parties made clear prior to the briefing that they intended to ask for details on the Khashoggi murder, even as the Trump administration declined to send CIA Director Gina Haspel to join the briefing.
Speaking to reporters after the briefing, Pompeo said there is “no direct reporting” connecting the crown prince to the murder of Khashoggi.
Mattis echoed that point telling reporters “we have no smoking gun that the crown prince was involved” in the killing. Mattis said he read all the intelligence reports and transcripts himself.
But when he was asked if it was true the CIA expressed high confidence, Mattis would only say, “there you need to go to the CIA.”
“The administration position was defended by both of them in terms of what we had done naming 17 people who would suffer because we believed they were involved. But there was no satisfying answer about how it is possible that this could have occurred without the crown prince’s knowledge or direction,” Democrat Sen. Dick Durbin told CNN.
A US official told CNN last week that there is still is no smoking gun implicating the crown prince directly and the intelligence assessment is ongoing. Intelligence officials have said the CIA presented the President with a confidence-based assessment given the facts of the situation.
Though sources tell CNN that the CIA has assessed with high confidence that the prince directed Khashoggi’s murder, which was conducted by members of bin Salman’s inner circle, the fact that they don’t make a final conclusion gives the White House an out.
Haspel found herself at the center of a political dispute Tuesday amid reports that the White House was blocking her from attending the briefing, a claim national security adviser John Bolton denied.
But after Wednesday’s briefing, Durbin said lawmakers were told by those present that the decision was made by the White House.
“The absence of Gina Haspel was raised by Democrats and Republicans and we were told by those who were there, it was a decision by the White House she not be present,” he said.
Asked if the a reason was given, Durbin said, “no.”
Pompeo was also asked by reporters why Haspel was not present for the briefing with senators.
“I was asked to be here and here I am,” he said. When pushed on the issue, Pompeo repeated, “I was asked to be here and I am here.”
Still, Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham made his feelings known, calling the briefing “inadequate, because the CIA was not there” to answer questions and demanding a briefing from the agency.
“I’m not going to be denied,” Graham said, adding that if a briefing by the CIA is not done soon, “it’s going to be hard for me to vote for any spending bill.”
“Anything that you need me for to get out of town, I ain’t doing it until we hear from the CIA,” he said.
Asked if he has made his position clear to the President, Graham pointed to the cameras and said “I just did.”
In prepared remarks, both Pompeo and Mattis urged senators not to abandon US involvement in Yemen conflict and defended the importance of Saudi Arabia as a key partner in the region.
“I know many of you think it’s time to pack up and abandon the role we’ve been playing since the previous administration. I’m here to tell you why that’s a bad call,” Pompeo said.
“The more support from you we get, the better chance we have of ending the conflict and stopping the suffering that none of us are happy about,” Pompeo added.
Pompeo laid out what he described as “three vital missions” being carried out by the US: “to assist the Saudis and the Emiratis in their fight against Iranian-backed Houthi fighters,” “to decapitate al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula,” and “to protect Americans working in Saudi Arabia or transiting the strategic waterways around Yemen.”
He also devoted a large portion of his remarks to Iran’s malign influence in the region.
Mattis acknowledged Khashoggi’s murder in his own prepared comments but said US “security interests cannot be dismissed, even as we seek accountability for what President Trump described as the ‘unacceptable and horrible crime’ of Jamal Khashoggi’s murder, a crime which ‘our country does not condone.'”
“We must maintain our twin requirements of holding those responsible for the murder to account, while recognizing the reality of Saudi Arabia as a necessary strategic partner. We cannot be deflected from using all our influence to end this war for the good of innocent people in trouble, and ultimately the safety of our own people, and this includes our military engagement,” he said.
While the Yemen resolution has little future in the current GOP-led US House and has already failed once in the Senate this year, the fact it may now be on the verge of approval in the chamber underscores the growing amount of discontent on Capitol Hill with the administration and US relations with Saudi Arabia, aides said.
A vote could occur as soon as Wednesday afternoon.
Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders told CNN that he thinks “we have a good chance” of getting the votes to advance Yemen resolution.
“I think it’s going to be close. I think we have a good chance,” he said.
Pompeo expressed the administration’s opposition to the resolution, calling it “poorly timed” and saying it could curtail diplomatic efforts underway aimed at achieving a ceasefire agreement, adding the US is “on the cusp” of getting the parties to the table.
While Pompeo said Iran would not be a direct party to the talks, he hoped Tehran “won’t upset the apple cart” through their support of Houthi rebels in Yemen and scuttle the discussions.