In what may be the most stunning rebuke to date of the Trump presidency, the Senate voted Thursday — unanimously — to rebuke Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for his being responsible for the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi-born U.S. resident. With a 56-41 vote, the Senate also passed a resolution to withdraw U.S. military support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen, which has created the worst humanitarian crisis in the world today, with 12 million civilians in danger of starving. These votes occurred in a Republican-controlled Senate, and those who voted for the resolutions included some of President Donald Trump's usually reliable allies, including Rand Paul and Mike Lee. Is this a shot across the White House bow?
It is important to remember that this comes not long after President Trump sent Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Defense James Mattis to try to convince members that there was no evidence that MBS, as the crown prince is known, ordered or was complicit in the killing of Khashoggi. Both men embarrassed themselves and hurt their reputations by misleading Congress when the CIA had confidently concluded that MBS did indeed order the killing of the journalist, basing the conclusion on intercepts and other concrete evidence. When CIA Director Gina Haspel briefed selected members at Congress' insistence, she reportedly confirmed her agency's conclusion. The president, of course, has access to the assessment, though he may well not have read it, as he reads very little, according to White House insiders, but his willful ignorance comes at a price.
The president is entering a dangerous moment with Congress, with Democrats about to gain control of the House. Trump no longer can count on lackeys and sycophants on key House committees to shield his worst instincts and ignore evidence of wrongdoing. Though Democrats have to walk a fine line between conducting proper oversight and turning Trump into a victim of partisan score-settling, there is no question that the Trump administration will face tremendous scrutiny on past and current behavior. But the Senate's actions Thursday suggest the president may face hurdles even in the body his party still controls.
The votes to condemn MBS and withdraw military support for the war in Yemen are largely symbolic, but the president faces a real threat to his agenda in the days ahead. Earlier in the week, during an Oval Office meeting with Democratic leaders Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer, he said he would gladly shut down the government Dec. 21 if he did not get everything he wants to build a border wall. "I am proud to shut down the government for border security, Chuck, because the people of this country don't want criminals and people that have lots of problems and drugs pouring into our country, so I will take the mantle," he said. But, as Pelosi tried to explain, Trump doesn't have the votes to get the $5 billion he wants to build his wall, even from Republicans in the House, not to mention passing it in the Senate, which requires 60 votes rather than a simple majority because Democrats could filibuster the bill.
All of this comes as the president faces increasing jeopardy from the investigations into Russia's meddling in the 2016 election and into his own actions during the campaign and since. Guilty pleas from Trump's former personal lawyer and his first national security adviser, as well as the special counsel's effort to abrogate a plea agreement with Trump's former campaign manager Paul Manafort, have raised issues concerning the president's actions as a candidate, president-elect and president.
Congress is a coequal branch of government under our system, and the president's current weakness should encourage Republican legislators not to cave to unreasonable demands. If the president were wise, he'd back off empty threats to shut down major agencies next week and figure out a way to work with Congress on the people's business.
Linda Chavez is chair of the Center for Equal Opportunity and a senior fellow at the Niskanen Center. To find out more about Linda Chavez, visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at www.creators.com.