The US Senate today censured Saudi crown prince Mohammad bin Salman in an extraordinary challenge to the decades-old US-Saudi alliance.
The resolution, passed by a voice vote, states that "the Senate believes crown prince Mohammad bin Salman is responsible for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi," a dissident journalist killed in the Saudi consulate general in Istanbul, Turkey.
The Senate action is also a rebuke of President Donald Trump's handling of the bilateral relationship. The White House has urged senators to desist from any measure that would harm the US-Saudi alliance.
The resolution acknowledged that relations with Riyadh are important for US national security and economic interests. But it went on to condemn Riyadh's handling of the Yemen civil conflict, "apparent detention of the prime minister of Lebanon, undermining the unity of the Gulf Cooperation Council, expulsion of the Canadian ambassador and suppression of dissent within the Kingdom."
Senators who advanced the measure blamed crown prince Mohammad for those missteps.
"Saudi Arabia is a strategic ally and is worth saving but not at any cost," senator Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) said. "The crown prince is dangerous and has put the relationship at risk."
Trump two weeks ago sent defense secretary Jim Mattis and secretary of state Mike Pompeo to dissuade the senators from censuring Riyadh. But their arguments only emboldened the senators.
Pompeo said that "there is no direct reporting connecting the crown prince to the order to murder Jamal Khashoggi." Mattis added that, based on the intelligence he reviewed, "we have no smoking gun that the crown prince was involved."
Graham, in a reference to the instrument allegedly used in Khashoggi's murder, "There is no smoking gun — there is a smoking saw."
While nothing that he has "great respect" for Pompeo and Mattis, Graham conceded that "if they were in a Democratic administration I would have been all over them for being in the pocket of Saudi Arabia."
The Senate today also approved a resolution by a 56-41 vote that directs the Pentagon not to support Saudi-led military operations in Yemen. The White House already said Trump would veto it. A procedural vote in the House of Representatives ensured that the Yemen resolution would not come up for a vote before the end of the current Congress.
House speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin) would not commit to bringing the Senate resolution censuring crown prince Mohammad to a vote before Congress adjourns.
Both votes in the Senate stem from dissatisfaction with the administration's decision not to penalize Saudi leaders over the killing. Graham and other senior senators, after being briefed last week by CIA director Gina Haspel, said US intelligence analysts hold the Saudi leader responsible for the murder.
Trump said crown prince Mohammad should not be targeted regardless of what the US intelligence community may conclude, citing national security interests and Riyadh's cooperation in keeping oil prices stable.
A Saudi official inquiry backed by the Trump administration pins the blame on unauthorized actions by lower-level government agents. Riyadh says the case should not be politicized. The Saudi embassy in Washington was not immediately available for comment.
The US administration on 15 November placed 17 mid-ranking Saudi officials on its sanctions list, charging them with organizing and implementing Khashoggi's killing.
US secretary of energy Rick Perry visited Saudi Arabia on 8-9 December, expressing support for Riyadh and pledging US assistance for the Saudi civilian nuclear program — one of the components of Saudi Arabia's effort to diversify its oil-dependent economy.
The Senate vote is also a challenge for the administration that has justified the re-imposition of sanctions on Iran by describing Tehran as the principal threat to the stability of the Middle East.