WASHINGTON (AP) — The Trump administration pushed back Monday against allegations that it was trying to cover up the killing of Saudi columnist Jamal Khashoggi when it failed to send Congress a report determining who was responsible for his death.
"America is not covering up for a murder," Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told reporters at the U.S. Embassy in Budapest.
Late last year, 22 bipartisan members of the Senate called for an investigation into Khashoggi's Oct. 2 death and specifically whether Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was responsible. The investigation was requested under provisions of the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act.
The act required the president to report back by Feb. 8 to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on whether the crown prince was responsible. In a Feb. 8 letter to Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey, the ranking Democrat on the committee, Pompeo said President Donald Trump had called for a prompt and open investigation into the death of Khashoggi, a columnist for The Washington Post who had been critical of the royal family.
In the letter, obtained by The Associated Press, Pompeo wrote that in multiple meetings with Saudi officials and in numerous public statements, he had "emphasized the importance of a thorough, transparent and timely investigation, including accountability for those responsible for the killing." Pompeo also noted that the U.S. sanctioned 17 Saudi individuals for their involvement in the killing, but the letter did not assess whether the crown prince was responsible.
"This amounts to the Trump administration aiding in the cover-up of a murder," said Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., where Khashoggi lived. "America should never descend to this level of moral bankruptcy. Congress will not relent in its efforts to hold Saudi Arabia accountable for this heinous crime."
"The Trump administration has blatantly turned a blind eye to this crime, and is now refusing to provide a required report about who is responsible for his murder, despite the fact that the CIA concluded that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman personally ordered Khashoggi's killing," Kaine said in a statement Sunday.
Pompeo defended the administration's response to the death of Khashoggi, who entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul to get a document he needed for his upcoming marriage and was never seen again.
"America has taken more action in response to the tragic murder of Jamal Khashoggi and will continue to take more action, continue our investigation," Pompeo told reporters in the Hungarian capital. "We are working diligently on that. The president has been very clear — couldn't be more clear — as we get additional information, we will continue to hold all of those responsible accountable."
A senior administration official told the AP that the State Department regularly updates Congress on the status of the case and that the U.S. government will continue to work to hold accountable those responsible for the death. The official was not authorized to publicly discuss the issue and spoke only on condition of anonymity.
Some Democrats and Republicans, however, maintain the sanctions, including a ban on travel to the U.S., are insufficient. Lawmakers, including Menendez and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., introduced legislation Friday that would prohibit certain arms sales to Saudi Arabia in response to the killing of Khashoggi and the Saudis' role in Yemen.
Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., told CNN's "State of the Union" on Sunday that by law, when the chairman and ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee asks the president to make a finding as to a human rights violation overseas, the president has to respond. "That's what the law says. So he doesn't have an option here."
Murphy said lawmakers could go to court to try to make the president comply, or they can move forward with their own list of sanctions. "Congress doesn't have to wait for the president to fulfill his duty," Murphy said. "We can just make a determination ourselves."
Late last week, Saudi Arabia's Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Adel al-Jubeir, told reporters in Washington that people should await the results of the trial of the suspects as well as the end of an ongoing investigation before drawing any conclusions about the case. He insisted the crown prince had no role in the slaying — that it was a "rogue operation" with no official backing.
AP Diplomatic Writer Matthew Lee in Budapest contributed to this report.