(NEW YORK) — Secretary of State Mike Pompeo again cast doubt on the reported CIA assessment that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was involved in the brutal murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, saying the U.S. was still “developing” a “set of facts.”
His defense of Saudi Arabia, which ranged from the Saudis “have already paid the price” for the plot to Iran is the real problem in the region, stands in the face of growing anger in Congress over the kingdom’s actions and the administration’s continued defense of the country — which some lawmakers are even calling a cover-up.
CIA director Gina Haspel will brief leadership in the House of Representatives on the CIA assessment Wednesday, which senators briefed by Haspel said points to the crown prince’s direct involvement, including exchanging messages with the team as the plot unfolded.
But Pompeo said the media’s reporting on the assessment “has been inaccurate,” while declining to say what was false.
“They’re still working on this,” he added of the CIA. “The direct evidence isn’t yet available. It may show up tomorrow, it may have shown up overnight, but I haven’t seen it.”
Pompeo was grilled by the anchors of Fox and Friends, the network’s morning news program that is watched closely by President Trump. When pressed by one anchor on whether he believed Prince Mohammed’s denials, Pompeo did not respond, saying instead, “The kingdom of Saudi Arabia decides who runs the country.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a close Trump ally, has said he will not allow U.S. arms sales to the Saudis to continue as long as the crown prince, sometimes known by his initial’s MBS, is in power.
To send a message to the Saudis and the White House, the Senate will begin debate Wednesday on a resolution to withdraw U.S. military support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, something Pompeo and Defense Secretary James Mattis lobbied Congress to not do. A similar bill has been introduced in the House, with Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky., whipping Republican support to get a vote before the year’s end. While it’s not likely to get to Trump’s desk, the Senate vote would be a sharp rebuke of Trump and his handling of the Khashoggi affair.
But Pompeo pushed back Wednesday, defending the administration’s response by pointing to the sanctions and visa bans imposed on the team that carried out the attack. Saudi Arabia has said that the team conducted a rogue operation, headed by the deputy intelligence chief Ahmed al-Asiri, who has since been fired.
The Trump administration has never challenged their narrative, with Pompeo saying Wednesday, “The Saudis have already paid the price. The folks who actually committed the murder, we’ve held accountable. We will continue to do that.”
Two top advisers to the crown prince were fired for their roles, and all of the team members on the ground in Istanbul, Turkey, have been arrested in Saudi Arabia, with the Saudi public prosecutor seeking the death penalty for five of them. That undermines the effect of any U.S. sanctions or visa bans, according to critics.
Pompeo also downplayed the incident and said the threat from Iran is the real challenge: “No one underestimates how horrible this murder was, but remember, Iran is running rampant throughout the Middle East. The death of any one individual is awful. The death of hundreds of thousands of people in Europe or the Middle East or the United States matters an awful lot, and President Trump is committed to protecting America.”
Throughout the interview, the top U.S. diplomat did not condemn or use any tough language concerning Saudi Arabia.
That stood in contrast to U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, who will leave her post at the end of the year.
The administration must have a “serious, hard talk with the Saudis to let them know we won’t condone this, we won’t give you a pass, and don’t do it again,” Haley told NBC News in an interview that aired Wednesday.
“When these things happen, we have to step back and never back away from our principles,” Haley added.
But she also praised the Saudis as “our partner in defeating and dealing with Iran” and called that help “hugely important.”
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