Dems, Trump set to talk about wall, Saudis

U.S. Border Patrol agents stand guard on the other side of the border in San Diego as they prepare for the arrival of hundreds of pro-migration protestors, seen through the border fence from Tijuana, Mexico, Monday, Dec. 10, 2018.(AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)

President Donald Trump and Democratic congressional leaders are seeking to avert a partial government shutdown amid a sharp dispute over Trump’s border wall and a lengthy to-do list that includes a major farm bill and a formal rebuke of Saudi Arabia for the slaying of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Trump is set to confer Tuesday at the White House with House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer ahead of a Dec. 21 deadline to shut down a range of government agencies.

“Republicans still control the House, the Senate and the White House, and they have the power to keep government open,” Pelosi and Schumer said in a joint statement Monday.

“Our country cannot afford a Trump Shutdown,” the Democrats said, adding that Trump “knows full well that his wall proposal does not have the votes to pass the House and Senate and should not be an obstacle to a bipartisan agreement.”

Republican congressional leaders have repeatedly said it’s up to Trump to cut a deal with Democrats, an acknowledgement of their own inability to produce spending bills with Republican votes alone.

That gives Democrats some momentum heading into the closed-door talks, which also could veer into Trump’s request for emergency funding for deadly wildfires in California and a Republican-sponsored bill to extend expiring tax breaks and delay some health care taxes.

Before lawmakers adjourn for the year they also may consider a bipartisan criminal justice reform bill, a bill to protect special counsel Robert Mueller and a plan to overhaul the system for handling sexual harassment complaints on Capitol Hill.

By far the biggest unresolved issue is the border wall. Trump wants the next funding package to include at least $5 billion for it, an idea Democrats have flatly rejected.

Pelosi and Schumer have urged Trump to support a bill that includes a half-dozen government funding bills largely agreed upon by lawmakers, along with a separate measure that funds the Department of Homeland Security at current levels through Sept. 30. The homeland bill includes about $1.3 billion for fencing and other security measures at the border.

If Trump does not agree to that, Democrats will likely urge a continuing resolution that funds all the remaining appropriations bills at current levels through Sept. 30, an aide said. The aide was not authorized to discuss strategy by name and requested anonymity.

Trump said Friday that Congress should provide all the money he wants for the wall and called illegal immigration a “threat to the well-being of every American community.”

At an appearance in Kansas City, Missouri, Trump accused Democrats of playing a political game and said it was one he ultimately would win.

“I actually think the politics of what they’re doing is very bad for them,” Trump said of Democrats. “We’re going to very soon find out. Maybe I’m not right. But usually I’m right.”

Pelosi, who is seeking to become House speaker in January, said she and many other Democrats consider the wall “immoral, ineffective and expensive” and noted that Trump promised during the 2016 campaign that Mexico would pay for the wall, an idea Mexico has repeatedly rejected.

Protecting borders “is a responsibility we honor, but we do so by honoring our values as well,” Pelosi said last week.

Schumer said Democrats want to work with Trump to avert a shutdown, but said money for border security should not include the concrete wall Trump has envisioned. Instead, the money should be used for fencing and technology that experts say is appropriate, Schumer said.

“We do not want to let a Trump temper tantrum govern our policies or cause the shutdown of a government, which everyone on both sides of the aisle knows is the wrong idea,” Schumer said. If Trump “wants to shut down the government over Christmas over the wall, that’s his decision,” he said.

Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy, the top Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee, said Trump was all that stands between fully funding the government and a shutdown.

“Time and again, President Trump has used the government of the American people as a bargaining chip for his fabricated solution to his manufactured crisis,” Leahy said Monday in a Senate speech.

Trump “wants to score a made-for-reality-TV moment and he doesn’t care how many hardworking Americans will suffer for it,” Leahy said. “This is not about border security. This is about politics, pure and simple.”

But House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., said Democrats were the ones playing politics.

Trump “wants to secure the border. He got elected president on that platform,” Scalise told Fox News Channel.

If there’s a better way to secure the border than the $5 billion plan Trump has laid out, Democrats “need to come with an alternative,” Scalise said Monday. “They can’t come and say they want to shut the government down for no reason because they don’t want border security. They’ll lose that argument with the American people.”

Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard Shelby, R-Ala., said Monday he does not believe Trump or Democrats want to shut the government down.

“When I was with him the indication was he didn’t want to shut the government down, but he did want his wall,” Shelby said.

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AP Congressional Correspondent Lisa Mascaro contributed to this report.

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Copyright © 2018 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved

Trump sides with Saudi Arabia on Khashoggi murder

President Donald Trump speaks to the media before leaving the White House in Washington, Tuesday, Nov. 20, 2018, to travel to Florida, where he will spend Thanksgiving at Mar-a-Lago. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

President Donald Trump publicly thanked Saudi Arabia for plunging oil prices just a day after he was harshly criticized for deciding not to further punish the kingdom for the killing of U.S.-based columnist Jamal Khashoggi.

Trump, who made clear in an exclamation-filled statement on Tuesday that he feels that the benefits of good relations with the kingdom outweigh the possibility its crown prince ordered the killing, tweeted on Wednesday that it’s “Great!” that oil prices are falling.

“Thank you to Saudi Arabia, but let’s go lower!” he wrote from his Mar-a-Lago club in Palm Beach, Florida, where he’s spending Thanksgiving.

The international crude benchmark has fallen under $65 per barrel from a four-year high of more than $86 in early October as the U.S., Saudi Arabia and Russia have stepped up output. However, OPEC, the cartel of oil-producing countries, could announce production cuts at its Dec. 6 meeting in Vienna, nudging prices upward.

The president on Tuesday condemned the brutal slaying of Khashoggi, a Saudi columnist for The Washington Post who had criticized the royal family. Trump described the brutal slaying of Khashoggi inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul as a “horrible crime … that our country does not condone.” But he rejected calls by many in Congress, including members of his own party, for a tougher response, and he dismissed reports from U.S. intelligence agencies that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman must have at least known about such an audacious and intricate plot.

“It could very well be that the crown prince had knowledge of this tragic event,” the president said. “Maybe he did and maybe he didn’t!”

The statement captured Trump’s view of the world and foreign policy, grounded in economic necessity. It began with the words “America First!” followed by “The world is a very dangerous place!”

The U.S. earlier sanctioned 17 Saudi officials suspected of being responsible for or complicit in the Oct. 2 killing, but members of Congress have called for harsher actions, including canceling arms sales.

Trump said “foolishly canceling these contracts” worth billions of dollars would only benefit Russia and China, which would be next in line to supply the weapons. Critics, including high-ranking officials in other countries, denounced Trump’s statement, saying he ignored human rights and granted Saudi Arabia a pass for economic reasons.

Asked by a reporter if he was saying that human rights are too expensive to fight for, Trump responded, “No, I’m not saying that at all.” But he preferred to focus on Iran rather than any actions by Saudi Arabia. The U.S. needs a “counterbalance” to Iran, “and Israel needs help, too,” he said. “If we abandon Saudi Arabia, it would be a terrible mistake.”

Trump was roundly criticized by Democrats, but some Republicans weighed in against him, too.

Sen. Rand Paul. R-Ky., said the Trump administration has “blinders on” in comparing Iran and Saudi Arabia and said Trump showed weakness in not standing up to Saudi Arabia.

Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, tweeted: “I never thought I’d see the day a White House would moonlight as a public relations firm for the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia.”

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who is close to Trump, also disagreed with the president’s decision, saying America must not lose its “moral voice” on the international stage.

“It is not in our national security interests to look the other way when it comes to the brutal murder of Mr. Jamal Khashoggi,” Graham said.

Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, mocked Trump’s announcement, tweeting that Trump “bizarrely devotes the FIRST paragraph of his shameful statement on Saudi atrocities to accuse IRAN of every sort of malfeasance he can think of.”

Zarif went on to joke that “perhaps we’re also responsible for the California fires, because we didn’t help rake the forests— just like the Finns do?” He appeared to be referring to recent remarks in which Trump suggested raking the forest floor prevented fires in Finland and would have helped to prevent California’s devastating wildfires.

Mevlut Cavusoglu, the foreign minister of Turkey, where the killing occurred, said Khashoggi’s death should not be covered up for the sake of maintaining trade ties with Saudi Arabia.

“It concerns a murder,” Cavusoglu said. “It is not possible to say, ‘Our trade will increase. Let’s cover this up. Let’s ignore it.'”

Saudi prosecutors have said a 15-man team sent to Istanbul killed Khashoggi with tranquilizers and then dismembered his body, which has not been found. Those findings came after Saudi authorities spent weeks denying Khashoggi had been killed in the consulate.

Trump said King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed “vigorously deny” any knowledge of the planning or execution of the killing. He also said the CIA has not made a conclusive determination about whether the crown prince ordered it.

A U.S. official familiar with the case told The Associated Press last week that intelligence officials had concluded that the crown prince, the kingdom’s de facto leader, did order the killing. Others familiar with the case, however, have cautioned that while it’s likely the crown prince had a role, there continue to be questions about the degree.

“We may never know all of the facts surrounding the murder of Mr. Jamal Khashoggi,” Trump said. “In any case, our relationship is with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. They have been a great ally in our very important fight against Iran.”

Trump said he knew some members of Congress would disagree with his decision. He said he would listen to their ideas, but only if they were focused on U.S. national security.

Late last week, a bipartisan group of senators introduced legislation that calls for the suspension of weapons sales to Saudi Arabia, for sanctions on people who block humanitarian access in Yemen or support the Houthi rebels and for mandatory sanctions on those responsible for Khashoggi’s death.

Democrats harshly criticized Trump’s decision Tuesday and called on Congress to cut off arms sales to Saudi Arabia and end support for Saudi Arabia’s war against the Iran-backed Houthi rebels in neighboring Yemen, which is facing a humanitarian crisis.

“Standing with Saudi Arabia is not ‘America First!'” said Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia, where Khashoggi lived. “President Trump has sided with a murderous regime over patriotic American intelligence officials.”

Democrat Dianne Feinstein of California, a member of the Senate intelligence committee, said Khashoggi was killed by agents of the Saudi government in a “premeditated murder, plain and simple,” and she said she would introduce legislation requiring intelligence agencies to release an unclassified public assessment.

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Bipartisan pressure on Trump to get tough with Saudi Arabia

Candles, lit by activists, protesting the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, are placed outside Saudi Arabia’s consulate, in Istanbul, during a candlelight vigil. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)

President Donald Trump faces increasing pressure to take tougher measures against Saudi Arabia over the killing of writer Jamal Khashoggi.

Trump says that Saudi Arabia is a “spectacular ally” and that he’s not convinced that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the kingdom’s de facto leader, was directly responsible for the Oct. 2 slaying of the editorial columnist for The Washington Post inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

But there are increasing calls for more action amid a growing consensus that the crown prince, who controls virtually all major levers of power in Saudi Arabia, must have known about the operation.

The pressure is coming from Democrats and Republicans in Congress and U.S. allies abroad.

France’s top diplomat said Monday that his country was mulling sanctions against Saudi Arabia. Germany on Monday announced that it has banned 18 Saudi nationals from entering Europe’s border-free Schengen zone because of their suspected connections to the killing. German officials, who earlier banned new weapons exports to Riyadh, also said they are halting previously approved arms exports.

Over the weekend, Trump called reports that the crown prince ordered the killing “premature.” He said that it was “possible” and that it was also possible that people will never know the truth.

“Donald Trump just says, ‘Will anybody really know?’ as if our intelligence agencies are incapable of making an assessment,” Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said Monday.

He said CIA Director Gina Haspel and National Intelligence Director Dan Coats need to “come out and provide the American people and the Congress with a public assessment of who ordered the killing of Jamal Khashoggi.”

Saudi Arabia’s top diplomat insists that the crown prince had “absolutely” nothing to do with Khashoggi’s death, but U.S. intelligence officials have concluded that he ordered the killing, according to a U.S. official familiar with the assessment. Others familiar with the case caution that while it’s likely that the crown prince had a role in the death, there continue to be questions about the degree to which he was involved.

Vice President Mike Pence told reporters that Trump on Tuesday would review information about Khashoggi’s death and then make his decisions about the United States’ “enormously important strategic relationship” with Saudi Arabia, which is aligned with the United States in pushing back against Iran.

The president leaves Tuesday to spend Thanksgiving at Mar-a-Lago, his estate in Palm Beach, Florida. The following week, the president and the crown prince will attend the Group of 20 summit in Buenos Aires. Saudi media reported Monday that the crown prince will be present, bringing him face-to-face with Trump and leaders from Turkey, Canada and Europe, among others.

The United States has stepped up its opposition to Saudi Arabia’s war against Houthi rebels in neighboring Yemen. Saudi airstrikes in the war in Yemen have killed thousands of civilians.

In recent weeks, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis have called for a cease-fire in Yemen, and the U.S. has announced it would stop refueling Saudi Arabian aircraft fighting the Houthis. The U.S. also has sanctioned 17 Saudi officials suspected of being responsible for or complicit in the killing.

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., says sanctioning people who are already imprisoned — including some facing the death penalty in connection with the killing — will have little effect. Paul said the president should cut off arms sales to the kingdom, an action that Trump has repeatedly said he did not want to take.

Late last week, a bipartisan group of senators introduced legislation that calls for suspending weapons sales to Saudi Arabia; sanctions on people who block humanitarian access in Yemen or support the Houthi rebels; and mandatory sanctions on those responsible for Khashoggi’s death.

“There must be a transparent, credible investigation into Khashoggi’s murder,” New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in introducing the bill with two Democratic and three Republican colleagues.

“On Yemen, the administration’s recent decision to suspend U.S. aerial refueling for the Saudi coalition absent an actual strategy for ending this conflict is empty action,” he said.

Some foreign policy experts advocate for a complete reset on relations with Riyadh.

Emile Nakhleh, a former member of CIA’s senior intelligence service, said that since the crown prince assumed power three years ago, he has turned his country into a “strongman autocracy” that can’t be trusted.

“His ruthless power grab, repression of potential challengers within his family, and crackdown on all opposition to his policies and projects inside and outside of Saudi Arabia have put American-Saudi relations at risk,” Nakhleh wrote in an op-ed Monday in the online intelligence newsletter The Cipher Brief. “He feels empowered to crush his potential rivals within the ruling family by his close relationship to President Trump and Jared Kushner.”

Kushner, the president’s son-in-law, has worked with the crown prince on various issues, including on how to end the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.

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Mattis promises ‘further action’ over Khashoggi murder

U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis listens to a question on the Department of Defense budget posture during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington.  (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, File)

The killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi “undermines regional stability” and the U.S. State Department plans to take further action in response to the killing, U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said Saturday at an international conference in the Middle East.

Mattis never mentioned Saudi Arabia directly in connection with the Oct. 2 slaying of Khashoggi at the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul, Turkey. But he noted that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo revoked visas of Saudis implicated in the killing of the Washington Post writer, and he said additional measures will be taken.

Turkish officials have said that a Saudi team of 15 men tortured, killed and dismembered the writer and in a premeditated act. The kingdom initially said it knew nothing about what happened to Khashoggi, but on Thursday said evidence shows that the killing was premeditated.

Mattis made no move to directly blame Saudi and did not refer to the calls from members of Congress to cut arms sales to Saudi Arabia or impose sanctions on the kingdom. But his broader mention of the matter toward the end of his speech underscores the serious national security ramifications the incident poses for relations with a key U.S. ally.

“With our collective interests in peace and unwavering respect for human rights in mind, the murder of Jamal Khashoggi in a diplomatic facility must concern us all greatly,” Mattis told international officials and experts at the Manama Dialogue. “Failure of any one nation to adhere to international norms and the rule of law undermines regional stability at a time when it is needed most.”

He added that he will continue to consult with President Donald Trump and Pompeo as they consider the broader implications of the matter.

Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Jubeir, who spoke after Mattis at the conference, said hysterical media are rushing to judgment in the Khashoggi case.

“Unfortunately there has been this hysteria in the media about Saudi Arabia’s guilt before the investigation is completed,” he said, in response to questions about the killing. “What we say to people is wait until everything is done” then decide if the investigation was serious or not.

He said that the kingdom will hold those responsible accountable and put mechanisms in place to ensure this doesn’t happen again. “We will overcome” the consequences of the Khashoggi killing, he added.

Still, Mattis’ speech also reflected the difficult dilemma this has caused. In one section deeply critical of Iran, he referred to the ongoing attacks on Saudi by Iranian-backed Houthi militants in Yemen.

“I reiterate U.S. support for our partners’ right to defend themselves against Iranian-supplied Houthi attacks on their sovereign territory, and at the same time call for an urgent end to the fighting,” Mattis said.

Others in the U.S., however, have condemned the Saudis for what has been called indiscriminate bombings that have slaughtered civilians. Mattis and others, meanwhile, have said the U.S. is providing key support to the Saudi-led coalition, and that the assistance is helping the kingdom improve its targeting.

The U.S. he said, wants to continue to build the capacity of the Yemeni security forces who are batting the Houthis in a brutal civil war.

Mattis also later talked about America’s shared interests with its Arab and Israeli partners, adding that “our respect for the Saudi people is undiminished.”

But, he cautioned that respect “must come with transparency and trust.”

Saudi Arabia’s slow shift to reveal more details about the killing also reflects the kingdom’s acknowledgement that the killing could have a serious diplomatic, and possibly economic impact.

Khashoggi lived in self-imposed exile in the U.S. for the past year and wrote editorial columns for The Washington Post that were critical of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the kingdom’s heir apparent. He lived in self-imposed exile in the United States for nearly a year before his death, had written critically of Prince Mohammed’s crackdown on dissent.

More broadly, Mattis’ speech Saturday, focused on regional cooperation and the U.S. commitment to the Middle East.

He repeated his frequent criticism of Iran’s “outlaw regime,” which has fueled insurgencies in Yemen and Iraq, backed Syrian President Bashar Assad’s brutal government and fostered proxy terrorists across the region.

And he made clear that the U.S. commitment to the region outpaces any presence by Russia, which he said lacks essential moral principles.

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