Read this post from yesterday for background if you missed it. Mike Pompeo and James Mattis came to the Hill this morning to deliver a classified briefing to the Senate on the Saudi war in Yemen. Conspicuously missing: CIA director Gina Haspel, who’s obviously well informed about the war and even better informed about the Saudi murder of Jamal Khashoggi. Senators wanted to ask her two questions based on recent reporting. First, is it true that she’s listened to the Turkish audio of the murder? Second, is it true that the CIA has concluded with “high confidence” that Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered the killing?
The fact that Haspel was MIA when congressional interest in hearing from her was high speaks volumes about what answers she would give. Hint: Not ones that would have been helpful to preserving Trump’s friendly relations with the Kingdom.
After the briefing Dick Durbin confirmed yesterday’s reporting. According to Mattis and Pompeo, it was the White House that held Haspel back from testifying.
"The most persuasive presence in this briefing was the empty chair."
Following Khashoggi briefing, Sen. Dick Durbin says "we were told in this briefing that it was at the direction of the White House" that CIA head Gina Haspel "did not attend" https://t.co/VNdoQBNAlB pic.twitter.com/OAvyYBg0JT
— This Week (@ThisWeekABC) November 28, 2018
Other senators confirmed to the Daily Beast that Mattis and Pompeo told them Haspel was blocked from attending by Trump. The two were pressed by reporters afterward on whether it was true that bin Salman ordered Khashoggi’s assassination. We have no “direct reporting” about that, said Pompeo. There’s no “smoking gun,” said Mattis. Which sounds suspiciously like a feeble attempt to avoid admitting that the evidence in its totality points to bin Salman by emphasizing that he wasn’t caught red-handed or anything.
And so a briefing that was aimed at winning Senate support for continued U.S. backing of the Saudi war in Yemen ended up pissing everyone off:
[Haspel’s] absence contributed to the exact opposite result their briefing was meant to accomplish—to shore up support for the bloody U.S.-backed Saudi-Emirati war in Yemen. As Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Mike Lee (R-UT) are set to force a vote on ending Washington’s support for the conflict, previously undecided senators left the briefing indicating they will join an effort that would deliver a forceful rebuke to President Donald Trump and two key authoritarian Mideast allies…
“I have laid on the railroad tracks to keep us from doing things that I believe are against our national interest, as it relates to Saudi Arabia,” [Bob] Corker said. “But I may now be willing to get on the [Yemen] vehicle, knowing it can be amended, to figure out some way for us to send the appropriate message to Saudi Arabia that appropriately displays American values and American national interest.”…
“The Goldilocks solution is, absolutely, the administration forcing Saudi Arabia to take ownership over what has happened with the journalist, and putting in place appropriate policies relative to what they’re doing as it relates to innocent civilians,” Corker added.
Corker can probably be appeased with a new, verrrrrrry carefully worded statement by the White House and/or the Saudi government obliquely acknowledging some sort of culpability for Khashoggi. Appeasing Trump’s buddy Lindsey Graham will be harder, though. He doesn’t want the Saudis to “take ownership” of the matter or whatever. He wants Haspel in front of the Senate, ASAP, or he’s not voting on anything important going forward. Not the spending bill next week, not anything. Even judges? he was asked. “Whatever gives me the most leverage,” he replied.
Sen @LindseyGrahamSC: "The question for me is whether or not the CIA supports the conclusion, with a high degree of confidence, that the Crown Prince was complicit in the murder of Mr. Khashoggi.…I'm not going to blow past this." pic.twitter.com/i28eUcGggF
— CSPAN (@cspan) November 28, 2018
Graham is usually a reliable ally for Trump but asking him to look the other way at Khashoggi’s murder is asking him to betray his buddy John McCain’s vision of U.S. foreign policy as a force for human rights. In fact, I think half the reason Graham is typically so loyal to Trump is because he wants to have some influence over him on precisely this sort of issue, the extent to which humanitarian considerations should drive U.S. action abroad. Normally that amounts to Graham advocating for military adventurism somewhere; in this case, it amounts to him savaging an ally in interviews, calling for bin Salman’s ouster as head of the Saudi regime. For Trump to try to thwart Graham on this by not even letting Haspel testify must feel like a major betrayal, forcing Graham to consider what all of his defenses of POTUS were really worth. So now he’s not going to do anything more for POTUS until he hears from the CIA.
Update: Confirmed: The briefing backfired badly.
Conn Carroll is the spokesman for Mike Lee, who’s co-sponsoring the resolution to withdraw U.S. support from the Saudi war. Eight months ago the same bill got 44 votes on the Senate floor. The Khashoggi murder and Trump’s handling of the fallout here in the U.S. has helped create a filibuster-proof majority for taking up the Lee resolution.