WASHINGTON — Sen. Lindsey Graham, a key defender of U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia, has vowed never to work with the kingdom so long as Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is in charge — a strong sign of the political tide is taking a swift turn.
On Tuesday morning’s “Fox and Friends,” Graham said of bin Salman, nicknamed MBS: “This guy has got to go. Saudi Arabia, if you’re listening, there are a lot of good people you can choose, but MBS has tainted your country and tainted himself.”
“I can never do business with Saudi Arabia again until we get this behind us,” said Graham, R-S.C. “I’m not going back to Saudi Arabia as long as this guy’s in charge.”
Amid allegations Saudi Arabia killed and dismembered Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi when he visited the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul two weeks ago, there’s a been a bipartisan call in Congress to respond.
Graham, the chair of the Senate appropriations subcommittee that oversees the foreign affairs budget, has fought efforts in Congress to block arms sales to Riyadh, arguing that as imperfect an ally as Saudi Arabia is, it’s shared life-saving intelligence, acts as a hedge on Iran and assists in the fight against the Islamic State group.
Graham took aim at the 33-year-old crown prince, linked in reporting to the jets that Khashoggi’s alleged killers flew to Istanbul, calling him “toxic” and adding: “He can never be a world leader.”
“I’ve been their biggest defender on the floor of the United States Senate,” Graham said of Saudi Arabia, before turning to bin Salman. “This guy is a wrecking ball. He had this guy murdered in a consulate in Turkey, and to expect me to ignore it, I feel used and abused.”
While suspending arms sales, leveling sanctions and cutting off military aid to the Saudi-led intervention have all been raised, President Donald Trump has seemed to take the denials of Saudi leaders at face value and repeatedly said potential arms sales are too valuable to the U.S. economy to be halted.
“Just spoke with the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia who totally denied any knowledge of what took place in their Turkish Consulate,” Trump said In a tweet Tuesday afternoon, adding the crown prince told him, “that he has already started, and will rapidly expand, a full and complete investigation into this matter. Answers will be forthcoming shortly.”
Asked what Trump should do earlier in the day, Graham said, “It’s up to him," adding: “I know what I’m going to do, I’m going to sanction the hell out of Saudi Arabia.”
“I feel personally offended,” Graham said. “Why would you put me and the president in this box after all the president has done?”
While Saudi Arabia’s support in Congress a decade ago was “broad and bipartisan,” the crown prince’s activities in recent years have placed that congressional support in “free fall,” Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., said in a Washington Post opinion piece on Tuesday. Murphy, who has long opposed U.S. military aid in the Yemen fight, saw the political stances changing even weeks earlier.
Murphy and Graham were among 20 Senate Foreign Relations Committee members who support imposing sanctions against those responsible, including the highest-ranking officials in the government of Saudi Arabia.
“Saudi Arabia is an important country to the United States,” Murphy said. “The Saudis are an important counterterrorism partner and have helped forge the current detente between the Sunni Gulf states and Israel. There are good reasons to not destroy the relationship. But that can’t happen until there is a full accounting of Khashoggi’s disappearance, and until the United States receives assurances that Saudi Arabia will be a much more responsible ally."
Joe Gould is senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry.