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Saudis’ Khashoggi Explanation Hits Wall of Bipartisan Skepticism

Sens. Corker, Durbin, Sasse and Tillis agree Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman had to know of murder plot

Senate Republicans and Democrats don’t agree on much these days, but Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman brought three of them together Sunday in rejecting his country’s explanation for Jamal Khashoggi’s death.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker told host Jake Tapper on CNN’s “State of the Union” that Saudi officials have “lost all credibility as it relates to explaining what has happened” when Khashoggi disappeared October 2, after entering the Middle Eastern power’s consulate in Istanbul, Turkey.

Khashoggi was a Saudi citizen living in the U.S. on a temporary resident card. He wrote occasional columns for The Washington Post and was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood.

He was also a friend of the infamous al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden.

Corker was referring to an announcement late Friday on Saudi state media that Khashoggi died when a conversation he was having with one or more of 15 Saudi agents who arrived at the consulate earlier in the day turned violent.

Related: Saudi Arabia Confirms Khashoggi Dead, Claims Killed in Fistfight

Khashoggi was “killed” during the melee, and 18 Saudi citizens have since been detained in the government’s investigation of the incident, the state media reported. The 15 agents departed Istanbul the same day, and Khashoggi’s body had not been found.

“Based on the intel that I’ve read, based on the other excerpts that I’ve read, it’s my thinking that MBS [the crown prince] was involved in this, that he directed this, and that this person was purposefully murdered,” said Corker, adding that he wants a complete investigation to play out before “rushing to judgment.”

“I don’t,” said Corker, when host Tapper asked if he believed President Donald Trump was helping MBS cover up his alleged involvement in the Khashoggi death. “I see the president evolving on this issue in a positive way.”

Corker said one of his committee aides is slated to receive a full CIA briefing Tuesday and he hopes senators will soon have access to tapes of the alleged murder, which Turkish officials claim to have.

Based on his discussion with Secretary of State Pompeo on Saturday afternoon, Corker said the United States has yet to receive those tapes. It remains unclear if the tapes the Turks claim to have are audio only or also video.

Corker, who said he had spoken with ambassadors from the West, said he believed there should be a coordinated, collective response if Khashoggi is found to have been murdered at the behest of MBS.

“In Saudi Arabia, you do not do something of this magnitude without having clearance from the top. We need to find out who that is and hold them accountable.”

Corker also emphasized the U.S. response to the situation must be “nuanced,” noting that sanctions are a “blunt instrument” and were “not that great.”

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) agreed with Corker regarding the role of MBS, saying, “The crown prince has his fingerprints all over this.”

But Durbin’s recommended response was anything but nuanced, as he called for the U.S. to expel the Saudi ambassador on Monday and for America’s allies to follow suit.

Durbin was interviewed on NBC’s “Meet the Press” by host Chuck Todd.

“We ought to formally expel the Saudi ambassador from the United States until there is a completion of a third-party investigation into this kidnap, murder, and God knows what followed that occurred in Istanbul,” said Durbin, who as minority whip is the assistant Democratic leader in the Senate.

Durbin claimed the only person outside of the Saudi kingdom who appears to accept the Saudis’ account is Trump. It was not clear what Durbin was referring to, since on Saturday Trump told reporters regarding the Saudi explanation, “No, I’m not satisfied until we find the answer. But it was a big first step. It was a good first step. But I want to get to the answer.”

Two other Republican senators also discussed the Khashoggi death Sunday.

“Arms sales are always means to an end. They’re not the end. The end is stability in the world so that problems abroad don’t come home to roost,” said Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) on “State of the Union.”

Sasse is a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, which would have to approve any U.S. response to Khashoggi’s death involving changes in arms sales to Saudi Arabia.

Also on “Meet the Press,” Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) said he is convinced MBS was aware of the operation to kill Khashoggi. “In Saudi Arabia, you do not do something of this magnitude without having clearance from the top. We need to find out who that is and hold them accountable,” Tillis said.

Tillis pointed out that several of MBS’ personal bodyguards are among the 18 people under investigation.

“I think the president will take the appropriate action when all the facts are in,” said Tillis. “But we have to have limits as to how far we would go to work with them in a very difficult, complex part of the world.”

Tillis called for an “investigation with the intelligence community, with the Turkish officials, Saudi officials outside of the crown prince to get to the bottom of it.”

Michele Blood is a Flemington, New Jersey-based freelance writer and a regular contributor to LifeZette.