Sen. Jim Risch was on the verge of facing down an insurgency from his GOP colleagues.
Top Senate Republicans were fuming at the Trump administration last week for ignoring congressional demands to further investigate the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
But Risch, the newly minted chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, wasn’t eager to preside over an intraparty fight. And so he quickly began working to calm GOP senators — even giving potentially misleading information.
The Idaho Republican told several of his GOP colleagues that President Donald Trump had complied with the Magnitsky Act by sending Congress a report determining who was responsible for the Saudi journalist’s murder — even though the administration had already publicly declared that it was going to ignore lawmakers’ demand.
Asked about the administration’s refusal, Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) — one of the many Republicans who was livid with the White House — said Risch told him the opposite had happened.
“It sounds like there is confusion about what exactly did or didn’t come” from the administration, said Gardner, who serves on the Foreign Relations Committee. “Sen. Risch just informed me that the administration has complied with the law. So you might want to clarify with Sen. Risch.”
In the days that followed, Risch also composed a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, asking for a classified briefing on the administration’s efforts to hold the Saudi government accountable. Republican aides said it represented an effort by Risch to dampen GOP anger and unite the party.
The episode underscores Risch’s desire to quell any revolt within the GOP rank and file and avoid picking public fights with the president. And it suggests the committee is likely to be a major site of internal GOP conflict over Trump in the new Congress.
Suzanne Wrasse, a spokeswoman for Risch, acknowledged the senator’s efforts to unite the GOP side of the committee, which included the previously unreported one-on-one meetings with Gardner and other Republican senators.
“As someone with decades of public service and leadership experience, Chairman Risch knows that a good leader is a good listener who looks for areas where there is consensus,” Wrasse said. “After hearing from some members with additional questions for the administration about Khashoggi’s murder, he communicated directly with each Republican member of the committee and ultimately led a letter inviting the administration to brief him and his colleagues.”
Gardner wasn’t the only Republican member Risch apparently tried to placate. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio — who similarly rebuked Trump — also talked with the chairman. He said Risch told him the Trump administration followed the law.
When asked about his interactions with Gardner and Rubio, Risch confirmed that he told the senators that the Trump administration complied with the Magnitsky Act.
“Yeah, sure, they did,” Risch said, despite the administration’s stonewalling. “They’ve been very forthcoming. They’ve given us, I think, everything that they’ve had. So they’re doing well.”
Risch’s letter to Pompeo also largely masked the divisions within his party. He secured signatures from every GOP member of the committee except Sens. Mitt Romney of Utah and Rand Paul of Kentucky.
Romney’s office declined to comment and Paul’s spokesperson said he was never asked to sign the letter.
That effort, however, was initially intended to be bipartisan, aides and senators said. Risch’s letter praised Pompeo for the administration’s “ongoing efforts” to work with Congress on the issue, but it did not reference the administration’s stated refusal to comply with the Magnitsky Act.
According to a draft of the letter obtained by POLITICO and rejected by Risch, Democrats attempted to insert language stating that the administration “is not in compliance” with the law, “which is of grave concern to members of this committee.” That draft was never sent.
Toward the end of his tenure as chairman, Risch’s predecessor, former Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), often used the committee to directly and publicly question and push back against Trump’s foreign policy. That included regularly speaking out against Trump and holding hearings where senators could grill senior administration officials. Risch, on the other hand, has said he would air his disagreements with the president in private.
Democrats say they’re concerned that Risch is turning the Foreign Relations Committee — which has a history of pushing back on presidents of both parties, regardless of the chairman’s party — into a rubber-stamp for Trump.
“If we let him get away with this — I mean, we might as well repeal the Magnitsky Act if we’re willing to endorse a president refusing a certification like this,” said Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy, a member of the Foreign Relations Committee. “I think it’s really unfortunate if the Foreign Relations Committee takes the position that the president is complying with the law when he clearly is not.”
Many Republicans agree. In a brief interview, Rubio said it is clear that the Trump administration’s “policy is that they refuse to follow the law with regard to Magnitsky.” But he said Congress — and the Foreign Relations Committee in particular — has no tools at its disposal to force the Trump administration to send lawmakers a full report on Khashoggi’s murder.
“The congressional branch has the ability to stop things from happening, but it doesn’t have a lot of power to make the president do anything,” Rubio said. “So obviously, you could take action on unrelated matters to force an administration to do something, but ultimately there’s no law we can pass that makes them answer a question if they refuse to comply.”
A senior administration official said that Trump “maintains his discretion to decline to act on congressional committee requests when appropriate” — indicating that the president has no intention of complying with the law, despite Risch’s public statements to the contrary.
“I don’t know what he’s talking about,” Sen. Bob Menendez, the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, said in response to Risch’s comments. “There’s no confusion that, from my perspective, the president did not comply with the law. And so saying what they’ve said — which is a reiteration of the past — is not a response to the specific request under Magnitsky.”
Rubio, Gardner and others count themselves among a majority of senators who, after receiving a classified briefing on Khashoggi’s October murder inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, concluded that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was complicit in the killing.
Trump himself has been reluctant to ascribe any blame for Khashoggi’s murder to the crown prince, citing the need to maintain a close relationship with Riyadh in the name of counterterrorism and security cooperation.
“You don’t send 17 people that close to the government overseas to kill someone in a consulate and the crown prince does not know about it, at a minimum, or direct it,” Rubio said.