WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo knowingly misled senators in a closed-door briefing last week on the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Sen. Chris Murphy said Wednesday — joining two key Republicans who have raised questions about the officials' credibility in the matter
Time will tell whether the rare shot at Mattis' integrity from Capitol Hill will have repercussions when he testifies to defend the president’s budget request a few months from now. In recent months, Mattis — a former Marine four-star popular with lawmakers — has defended other politically controversial moves by the Trump administration, like troop deployments to the U.S. border and plans to reorganize the military for a Space Force.
Murphy, D-Conn., said on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe" that the two officials had been placed “in a really bad spot,” during the all-senators briefing by President Donald Trump’s “maybe he did, maybe he didn’t” position on whether Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered the murder.
“I think the secretary of defense and secretary of state are in a really bad spot because the president has given this bear hug to MBS and to the entire Saudi regime so they are bound to carry out his bizarre policy,” Murphy said, using an acronym for the crown prince.
“But at the same time, it's sort of hard to call this a cover up given the fact that everybody in that briefing last week knew that Pompeo and Mattis were misleading us, knew there was no way this murder happened without the consent and direction of MBS.”
Murphy, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, co-sponsored a bipartisan resolution calling for an end to U.S. military aid in the Saudi-led war in Yemen, which has found new support in the wave of attention to Khashoggi’s death.
House Intelligence Committee member Chris Stewart, R-Utah, defended Mattis and Pompeo, as well as Trump’s response to the case. The intelligence provided to lawmakers about Khashoggi’s murder “was not definitive,” he said in a CNN interview on Tuesday.
“If someone is saying that Secretary Mattis or Secretary Pompeo were dishonest, they just don’t know those individuals,” Stewart said. “There’s no way in the world those individuals came out and lied because they didn’t.”
Trump has repeatedly avoided rebuking Saudi Arabia, pointing to the economic benefits of U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia and Riyadh’s role in preventing a spike in oil prices. He’s also argued its unknowable whether the crown prince was involved.
Mattis and Pompeo have defended the strategic relationship and downplayed the crown prince’s ties to the murder. After briefing members of the Senate on Nov. 28, Pompeo said: “There is no direct reporting connecting the Saudi crown prince to the order to murder Jamal Khashoggi.”
Three GOP lawmakers have voiced their own conclusions since a separate classified briefing Tuesday with CIA Director Gina Haspel.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tenn., told reporters the crown prince “ordered, monitored the killing” of Khashoggi. “If he were in front of a jury, he would be convicted of murder in about 30 minutes,” Corker said.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., concluded the crown prince was involved and suggested in a CNN interview Wednesday that Mattis and Pompeo were both technically accurate and simply echoing the administration’s position. Rubio is a member of the Senate Intelligence and Foreign Relations committees.
“I’m neither excusing it, I’m making an observation. I disagree with that assessment," Rubio said of the two officials. “I think you know enough and the American public knows enough about Saudi Arabia and about this murder to conclude that whether or not we have a smoking gun, there is no way that 17 people that close to that crown prince go to Turkey and murder a guy at a consulate and [the crown prince] not know about it and he not be OK with it, period.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and a close ally of Trump, told reporters there was a “smoking saw” — a reference to reports Saudi government agents murdered and dismembered Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. You’d have to be “willfully blind” to not conclude Mohammed was responsible, he said.
“I would imagine in a Democratic administration, I would be all over them for being in the pocket of Saudi Arabia,” Graham said of Mattis and Pompeo. “But since I have such respect for them, I’m going to assume they are being good soldiers. … I would really question someone’s judgment if they couldn’t figure this out.”
Graham, who is a member of the Armed Services and Foreign Relations committees, told Fox News that he he could no longer support arms sales to Riyadh under Mohammed, who he called “a wrecking ball when it comes to the Mideast.”
After the Saudi-led embargo on Qatar, Saudi treatment of Lebanon’s prime minister and Mohamed’s jailing of his family members, “I’ve had enough,” Graham said. “And if we don’t stop him now, it gets worse later. So I’m not going to support arms sales to somebody this unstable.”
“What makes you believe he wouldn’t take an American weapon system and give it to the Chinese? This guy’s nuts,” Graham said.
Another vocal proponent of foreign military sales, Rep. Kay Granger, R-Texas, said recently that she favors a halt on sales to Riyadh. In the new Congress, Granger is expected to ascend from the House’s lead appropriator for defense to the House’s lead Republican appropriator overall.
In a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing Tuesday, Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., said defense officials’ credibility on Capitol Hill has taken a hit because they’ve echoed the administration’s legalistic arguments, that U.S. aid to Saudi Arabia in Yemen aren’t “hostilities” under the law.
“We’re insulted by that, and I just think we need to be candid about what we’re doing and not doing,” Kaine said.
Joe Gould is the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He served previously as Congress reporter.