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Trump ally caught in crossfire as White House clashes with GOP over Saudi Arabia



Risch, a loyal ally of President Donald Trump, hoped that the briefing would temper bipartisan criticism of Trump's response to the murder – particularly among angry Republicans for his reluctance to hold Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman directly responsible.

But it seems to have had the opposite effect.

The briefing on March 5 was, according to everyone, a disaster. Treasury officials sent to update the legislators have not been able to answer even the simplest questions about the White House's decision to ignore the Congress' requests for a report on the role that the Saudi leader played in Khashoggi's death, two sources have told to CNN.

Risch appeared taken by surprise by a visibly frustrated group of Republican lawmakers, who confronted him privately to complain that the briefing had not provided new information on the killing of Khashoggi, according to several sources. Some even saw it as an intentional slap on the part of the administration.

  The bipartisan group of senators smoked for the administration of the consequences management of Khashoggi

Rather than alleviate their frustration , the briefing only fueled Republican rage over the situation, as many GOP senators emerged again motivated to reject.

"I think there is a growing push here in Congress not to leave MBS out of trouble," South Carolina Republican Senator Lindsey Graham said later.

The incident was a clear reminder of the construction of tensions between the White House and the Republican parliamentarians on the support of the administration for Saudi Arabia. He also emphasizes the uncomfortable position in which Rische finds himself: he chairs the most powerful foreign relations committee on the Hill, but disagrees with his party on one of the most important foreign policy problems of the moment.

Taken in the middle

Risch remained practically alone in defending the response of the administration to the murder of Khashoggi. Given that the division between Hill Republicans and the administration has worsened in recent months, the isolation of Risch has only increased particularly after the White House did not respond to the January deadline requesting a determination that it believes that MBS was responsible of the murder and should be sanctioned with the Magnitsky Act.

A senior official of the administration claimed that the President "retains his discretion to refuse to act upon requests of the Congress committee, if appropriate".

  The White House refuses to meet with Congress & # 39; deadline for killing Khashoggi

Risch was the only Senate MP to defend the White House response

which frustrated a significant part of the committee members who thought the administration had violated the law in his inability to respond.

The increasingly obvious layoffs of Congressional supervision at the White House are making it harder for Risch to meet the President. And months of inactivity have prompted Senate Republicans to evade his commission to push for a vote on their legislative proposals.

The last example came on Wednesday night, when the Senate voted to end US military aid in Saudi Arabia in its war in Yemen. The Yemen bill received a special privilege, which means that he was given expedited treatment and bypassed the commission process and the Senate's procedural obstacles to receive a vote in the Senate.

Risch voted against the Yemen resolution, while seven Republicans voted in favor, including members of the Foreign Relations Committee Rand Paul of Kentucky and Todd Young of the Indiana. The sources told CNN that they do not expect Risch to put pressure on the president in one way or another on the bill in the event of approval by the House.

  Trump's slow-motion disaster of the Khashoggi strategy

It is unclear whether Risch will support any other effort existing legislation aimed at the Saudi regime. Among these is a bill co-sponsored by Graham and the committee's highest democrat, Senator Bob Menendez of New Jersey, who seeks to ban some arms sales to Saudi Arabia and could eventually lead to sanctions directly on the MBS itself.

Despite his close relationship with the president and constant communication with the officials of the administration, Risch insists he does not feel the pressure to defend Trump.

"I don't really feel anyone's pressure," he told CNN. "It's still not a good way to do business, you have to be ready and negotiate in good faith. If you do, you don't have to worry about pressure."

The anti-Corker

While sources close to Risch insist that he is patiently navigating a complex situation, critics say he struggled to balance his natural inclination to protect the President with his supervisory responsibility as president.

This perception, in part, was fueled by the sharp confrontation between Risch and his predecessor, the former Republican Senator from Tennessee, Bob Corker, who, as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was among the the most loyal republican critics of Trump foreign policy, and his administration in general, at different points that define the White House as a "day center for adults".

Corker has also worked on proposals explicitly opposed by the White House, from the measures of revision of the current authorization to the use of the military force to reduce the authority of the Trump administration on the tariffs.

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It was a posture, from interviews to knock down cabinet secretaries to hearings, that often left Corker on the receiving end of a Trump Twitter diatribe – something that Risch, who prefers to share his views behind closed doors and directly with the Administration, it seems difficult to repeat.

For Risch, it's more than a delicate balance, a Republican senator on CNN said. "He is trying to walk a bit of rope – to be an ally for administration policies, but also to listen to the members of a powerful committee. It is not easy and it is clear that it will take time to find the right balance ".

Risch has a long public career to ask for experience while trying to find that balance, from his time in the Idaho State Senate and as Lieutenant Governor of the State on his second term in the United States Senate.

But if consensus is what he is looking for, he has had little help from the administration in achieving this goal.

Senators on both sides continue to complain about the lack of compliance with specific statutes, lack of information on plans or strategies and a series of reports that, in the words of a Republican senator, "have just come to more tori ***.

Trump not in development

There are no indications that the administration is trying to support further measures aimed at Saudis despite bipartisan support for various forms of legislative action

The President probably vetoed the resolution of Yemen if he passes in front of the Chamber The officials of the administration have indicated that the executive branch will continue to protect MBS with the hope that the controversy will pass, according to a family source with the internal reflection of the White House on the issue

This direction, the source said, comes directly from the president, who remains unshakable in his own way to consider the maintenance of the US-Arabia relationship as a priority. This view is also supported by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, national security adviser John Bolton and senior councilor Jared Kushner.

  While Cohen nails Washington, the White House announces that Kushner meets with the Saudi crown prince
Even the administration seems to check the flow of information regarding his investigation into Khashoggi's death. Intelligence officials have refused to provide indications if their assessment has evolved since the CIA director Gina Haspel informed lawmakers about the issue in December, often referring to questions addressed to the White House.

While the administration insists that the intelligence does not offer firearms that bind the crown prince to the plot, the legislators who emerged from last year's closed-door session with Haspel convinced the MBS even more convincingly.

Before Yemen's vote on Wednesday, Senator Chris Murphy, a Democrat and co-promoter of the resolution, seemed almost astonished at how little he had changed since December. "They are simply not moving," Murphy said. "The administration approached the Saudis, no further from the end of last year."

For President Risch, who is trying to bridge the gap between the administration and a Republican party in search of ways to punish Saudi Arabia, this does not make his job any easier.

Phil Mattingly and Jeremy of CNN Herb contributed to this report.


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