Idaho Republican Sen. James Risch, the new chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, decided last week to hold a classified briefing from administration officials on the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Risch, a staunch ally of President Donald Trump, had hoped the briefing would temper bipartisan criticism of Trump’s response to the murder – particularly among Republicans angry over his reluctance to hold Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman directly responsible.
But it seems to have had the opposite effect.
The March 5 briefing was, by all accounts, a disaster. Treasury officials sent to update lawmakers were unable to answer even the simplest of questions about the White House’s decision to ignore Congress’ requests for a report on the role the Saudi leader played in the death of Khashoggi, two sources told CNN.
Afterward, Risch appeared caught off guard by a visibly frustrated group of Republican lawmakers, who privately confronted him to complain that the briefing provided no new information on Khashoggi’s killing, according to several sources. Some even saw it as an intentional slap in the face by the administration.
Rather than easing their frustration, the briefing only stoked Republicans’ anger over the situation, as many GOP Senators emerged newly motivated to push back.
“I think there’s growing momentum here in Congress not to let MBS off the hook,” South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham said afterward.
The incident was a stark reminder of the tension building between the White House and Republican lawmakers over the administration’s support for Saudi Arabia. It also underscores the awkward position Risch finds himself in: He chairs the most powerful foreign relations committee on the Hill, yet is at odds with his party on one of the most important foreign policy issues of the moment.
Caught in the middle
Risch has stood virtually alone in defending the administration’s response to Khashoggi’s murder. As the divide between Hill Republicans and the administration has gotten worse in recent months, Risch’s isolation has only increased, particularly after the White House failed to respond to January’s deadline requiring a determination as to whether it believes MBS was responsible for the murder and should be sanctioned under the Magnitsky Act.
A senior administration official argued at the time that the President “maintains his discretion to decline to act on congressional committee requests when appropriate.”
Risch was the only Senate lawmaker who defended the White House’s response,
which frustrated a significant portion of committee members who thought the administration had violated the law in its failure to respond.
The White House’s increasingly overt dismissals of Congressional oversight are making it harder for Risch to stand by the President. And months of inaction have prompted Senate Republicans to circumvent his committee to push for a vote on their legislative proposals.
The latest example came Wednesday night, when the Senate voted to end US military aid to Saudi Arabia in its war in Yemen. The Yemen bill was given special privilege, meaning it was given expedited treatment and bypassed the committee process and Senate procedural hurdles altogether to receive a floor vote on the Senate.
Risch voted against the Yemen resolution, while seven Republicans voted for it, including Foreign Relations Committee members Rand Paul of Kentucky and Todd Young of Indiana. Sources told CNN that they do not expect Risch to personally lobby the President one way or another on the bill should it pass the House.
It’s also unclear if Risch will support any of the other existing legislative efforts targeting the Saudi regime. Among them is a bill co-sponsored by Graham and the committee’s top Democrat, Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey, that seeks to prohibit certain weapons sales to Saudi Arabia and could ultimately lead to sanctions directly on MBS himself.
Despite his close relationship with the President and consistent communication with top administration officials, Risch insists he does not feel pressure to defend Trump.
“I don’t really feel pressure by anyone,” he told CNN. “That’s again not a good way to do business. You need to be forthcoming and dealing in good faith. If you do that, you really don’t need to worry about pressure.”
While sources close to Risch insist he is patiently navigating a complex situation, critics say he has struggled to balance his natural inclination to protect the President with his oversight responsibilities as chairman.
That perception, in part, has been fueled by the stark comparison between Risch and his predecessor, former Tennessee Republican Sen. Bob Corker, who, as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations committee, was among the staunchest Republican critics of Trump’s foreign policy, and his administration at large, at several points calling the White House an “adult daycare center.”
Corker also worked on proposals explicitly opposed by the White House, from measures to revise the existing authorization for use of military force to reducing the Trump administration’s authority on tariffs.
It was a posture, from press interviews to dressing down Cabinet secretaries at hearings, that often left Corker on the receiving end of a Trump Twitter diatribe – something Risch, who prefers to share his opinions behind closed doors and directly with the administration, seems hardly likely to repeat.
For Risch, it’s more of a delicate balancing act, one Republican senator told CNN. “He’s trying to walk a tight rope a bit – be an ally for the administration’s policies, but also listen to the members of a powerful committee. It’s not easy and it’s clear it’s going to take time for him to figure out the right balance.”
Risch has a lengthy public career to call on for experience as he seeks to find that balance, from his time in the Idaho state senate and as the state’s lieutenant governor to his now second term in the US Senate.
But if consensus is what he’s seeking, he’s had little help from the administration in reaching that goal.
Senators in both parties continue to complain about lack of compliance with specific statutes, lack of information about plans or strategy and a series of briefings that, in the words of one Republican senator “honestly have just amounted to more bulls***.”
Trump not budging
There’s no indication that the administration is feeling any pressure to support additional measures targeting the Saudis despite bipartisan support for various forms of legislative action.
The President will likely veto the Yemen resolution if it passes the House. Administration officials have indicated that the Executive Branch will continue to protect MBS with the hope that the controversy passes, according to a source familiar with internal White House thinking on the issue.
That direction, the source said, comes directly from the President, who remains unwavering in his view that maintaining the US-Saudi relationship should be prioritized. That view is also supported by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, national security adviser John Bolton, and senior adviser Jared Kushner.
The administration also appears to be controlling the flow of information regarding its investigation into Khashoggi’s death. Intelligence officials have declined to offer any indication if their assessment has evolved since CIA director Gina Haspel briefed lawmakers on the matter in December, often referring questions to the White House.
While the administration insists the intelligence offers no smoking gun tying the Crown Prince to the plot, lawmakers emerged from last year’s closed door session with Haspel even more convinced MBS was responsible.
Ahead of Wednesday’s Yemen vote, Sen. Chris Murphy, a Democrat and co-sponsor of the resolution, almost appeared to marvel at just how little had changed since December. “They’re just not moving,” Murphy said. “The administration has gotten closer to the Saudis, not further away since the end of last year.”
For chairman Risch, who is trying to bridge the gap between the administration and a Republican Party looking for ways to punish Saudi Arabia, that doesn’t make his job any easier.
CNN’s Phil Mattingly and Jeremy Herb contributed to this report.