Lindsey Graham and Rand Paul break with Trump on Khashoggi

Lindsey Graham and Rand Paul, two of President Donald Trump’s closest allies on foreign policy, broke sharply with the Trump administration Tuesday over its insistence that there’s no “smoking gun” linking Saudi Arabia’s crown prince to the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

“There is not a smoking gun, there’s a smoking saw,” Graham, R-South Carolina, told reporters after emerging from a Capitol Hill briefing with Central Intelligence Agency Director Gina Haspel.

Graham was convinced the administration was willfully ignoring the evidence linking Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman with Khashoggi’s death to avoid having to sever ties with the kingdom.

Sen. Lindsey Graham calls the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia complicit in journalist’s death

Paul, R-Kentucky, suggested that he’s being stymied by a “deep state” because a CIA briefing Tuesday on Khashoggi’s death was limited to only a handful of senators — and was only scheduled after lawmakers demanded it.

“The very definition of a ‘deep state’ is when the intelligence communities withhold information from Congress,” said Paul.

Graham’s rage about the crown prince’s involvement in Khashoggi’s killing inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul was shared by Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tennessee.

“If he was in front of a jury he would be convicted in 30 minutes, guilty.” Corker said of the crown prince.

Graham had similar thoughts.

“You have to be willfully blind not to come to the conclusion that this was orchestrated and organized by people under the command of MBS,” the senator said, referring to the crown prince.

“I would really question someone’s judgment if they couldn’t figure this out,” Graham continued. “It is there to be figured out.”

Trump last month sided with the Saudi Arabian government, which has denied the prince was involved in directing Khashoggi’s death.

“Maybe he did and maybe he didn’t!” Trump said in a statement that seemed to discount the intelligence community’s findings.

Despite their pique with the administration, neither Graham nor Paul was willing to directly criticize Trump himself for refusing to acknowledge bin Salman’s complicity — an indication that both lawmakers still want to be on the president’s good side even as they prepare to confront the White House head-on with rhetoric and legislative action.

Graham and Paul want the Senate to adopt a nonbinding resolutions tying the Saudi prince to Khashoggi’s killing and ending U.S. support for the Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen.

Graham wants to impose sanctions on Saudi Arabia over the episode and Paul would like to suspend all arms sales. The Trump administration opposes all of these efforts.

Last week, Graham was enraged over a Senate briefing from Defense Secretary James Mattis and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, where both officials suggested the crown price was not involved.

Tuesday, Graham said he thought Mattis and Pompeo were just being “good soldiers” to Trump, who is reluctant to take action that would alienate a longtime economic partner.

“I think the reason (Mattis and Pompeo) don’t draw the conclusion that (the crown prince is) complicit is because the administration doesn’t want to go down that road, not because there’s not evidence to suggest he’s complicit,” Graham said.

“I have great respect for (Mattis and Pompeo),” he continued. “I would imagine, if they were in a Democratic administration, I would be all over them for being the pocket of Saudi Arabia. But since I have such respect for them, I am going to assume they are being good soldiers.”

Graham also wouldn’t say that Trump is instructing his officials to only disseminate certain information to senators.

“We have an independent duty. We can make our own decisions about the quality of the evidence,” he said of fellow senators. “(Information is) not being withheld. I just got briefed.”

Paul also made clear his anger was not directed at Trump. Though he was angry at not being allowed in the Tuesday briefing, which was limited to relevant committee chairmen and select other participants, he blamed the intelligence community for keeping him and others out.

“That’s more like an oligarchy,” said Paul, who has been pushing for a decade to open up closely held intelligence briefings, which are often restricted to eight people. “That is not democracy. Why should someone elected in California get the information and not someone in Kentucky not get the information?

“(There’s) too much power of intelligence community — it has nothing to do with which president it is,” he continued.

Paul also said he had concerns about the narrative surrounding Khashoggi’s killing that he wanted to make sure were addressed with Haspel.

He called it “wrong” for the CIA to conclude that the crown prince was involved, but then “withhold the information” from the rest of Congress. “ He argued that Pompeo and Mattis needed to be asked specifically if they disagreed with the CIA’s conclusion there is a “high probability” that the crown prince ordered Kashoogi’s murder.

And he said if he was allowed into the secure room for the briefing, he’d ask Haspel — a Kentucky native — whether there were text messages sent from the killers to the crown prince’s office.

“What I’m concerned about are the public statements from members of the administration who say ‘There’s no direct evidence,’” said Paul. “Well to me, it sounds fairly direct if there was communication going on between the killers in Istanbul and the crown prince’s office in Saudi Arabia.”

In the final weeks of the legislative session, Graham and Paul could find themselves challenged not just by the administration but by their own Senate Republican leadership.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, said Congress is looking for an “appropriate” response to Khashoggi’s murder, but said the U.S. needs to maintain its relationship with Saudi Arabia.

“No response is certainly not appropriate,” McConnell said at a Wall Street Journal event. “Looking the other way is not appropriate but a complete fracture with Saudi Arabia in my view is not in our best interest long term.”

Emma Dumain covers Congress and congressional leadership for McClatchy DC and the company’s newspapers around the country. She previously covered South Carolina politics out of McClatchy’s Washington bureau. From 2008-2015, Dumain was a congressional reporter for CQ Roll Call.