President Donald Trump’s embrace of Saudi Arabia has exposed a foreign policy rift in the Republican Party, as some of his colleagues warn that not punishing the kingdom for its role in killing a US-based columnist will have dangerous consequences.
Many Republicans, even senators Lindsey Graham and Rand Paul, who share their views on the matter with the president, have denounced Mr Trump’s decision not to levy harsher penalties on Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman over the death and dismemberment of Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul.
Senator Bob Corker, the Republican chairman of the influential Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said Wednesday he was “astounded” by Mr Trump’s statement and likened it to a press release for Saudi Arabia.
“It is a delicate situation when we have a long-term ally that we’ve had for decades, but we have a crown prince that I believe ordered the killing of a journalist,” Mr Corker told Chattanooga TV station WTVC in his home state of Tennessee.
“We don’t have a smoking gun. Everything points to the fact that he knew about it and directed it.”
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo defended Mr Trump’s decision, saying the US has already placed sanctions on 17 Saudi officials suspected of involvement in the October 2 killing of The Washington Post columnist, who had been critical of the royal family.
“We’ve sanctioned 17 people, some of them very senior in the Saudi government,” Mr Pompeo said in a radio interview with KCMO in Kansas City, Missouri.
“We are going to make sure that America always stands for human rights.”
“When we lose our moral voice, we lose our strongest asset,” he said.
Members of both parties have accused Mr Trump of ignoring US intelligence that concluded, according to one official, that it was likely the crown prince ordered the killing.
Several politicians have indicated that the US has no “smoking gun” that proves he was responsible, but they have called on the CIA and other top intelligence agencies to publicly share what they told the president about the killing.
In his statement on Tuesday, Mr Trump argued that punishing Saudi Arabia by “foolishly cancelling” Saudi arms deals worth billions of dollars to the US would only benefit Russia and China.
Critics, including high-ranking officials in other countries, accused Mr Trump of ignoring human rights and giving Saudi Arabia a pass for economic reasons.
It is “America First”, Mr Trump said.
That unleashed a tweet on Wednesday from Democratic Representative Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii who wrote: “Being Saudi Arabia’s bitch is not ‘America First.’”
The US, Russia and the Saudis have boosted oil production in anticipation of sharply lower exports from Iran due to U.S. sanctions reinstated after Mr Trump exited the Iran nuclear deal.
Mr Trump publicly thanked Saudi Arabia on Wednesday for plunging oil prices.
However, Opec, the cartel of oil-producing countries, could announce production cuts at its December 6 meeting in Vienna, nudging prices upward.
“Thank you to Saudi Arabia, but let’s go lower!” he wrote from his Mar-a-Lago club in Palm Beach, Florida, where he is spending Thanksgiving.
Criticism of the president will likely resume after the holiday when politicians return to Capitol Hill early next week.