Republicans to take on Donald Trump over Saudi Arabia? Don′t bet on it | Americas| North and South American news impacting on Europe | DW | 21.11.2018
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Republicans to take on Donald Trump over Saudi Arabia? Don't bet on it

High-ranking Republicans have expressed outrage over Trump's statement on the Khashoggi killing, in which he refused to impose significant sanctions against Saudi Arabia. Will their words be followed by actions?

The usual suspects — Senators Jeff Flake and Bob Corker — who both have routinely denounced Trump and sparred with him since he took office nearly two years ago, took the lead.

"'Great allies' don't plot the murder of journalists, Mr. President," Arizona Senator Flake wrote on Twitter on Tuesday. "'Great allies' don't lure their own citizens into a trap, then kill them."

Not to be outdone, Corker, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, took to Twitter declaring, "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."

In several additional tweets, Corker wrote that the president is legally required to determine and report to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee whether Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed Bin Salman is responsible for the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi and vowed that Congress would consider all tools at its disposal to address the issue.

Read more: Donald Trump backs Saudi Arabia in Khashoggi murder row

President Donald Trump and Senator Jeff Flake

Outgoing Senator Jeff Flake has been a constant critic of Trump

Talk is cheap and time is running out

There is only one problem with Corker's tough-sounding pronouncements. He only has about 30 days left as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee before he leaves Congress, having decided not to seek re-election in the face of Trump's opposition to his candidacy. The same is true for Flake, who also decided to call it quits instead of trying to fight Trump and hold on to his Senate seat. The two senators have done little to follow up their verbal criticism of Trump with legislative action during much of their tenure, which raises the question of why that should change now.

What makes the verbal grandstanding by Flake and Corker, as well as by other prominent Republicans, including Senators Lindsay Graham and Rand Paul, ring even more hollow is that it is highly unlikely that the lame-duck Republican Congress in its last few weeks left will produce any meaningful legislation on any issue, let alone one where it is sure to clash with the White House.

"We have seen in the past when a number of Republicans expressed their unhappiness with or dismay about an action the president has taken, some vow to do something about it, but rarely does anything happen," said Norman Ornstein, a congressional scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute (AEI).

Reed Galen, a former Republican strategist who worked on the campaigns of John McCain, Arnold Schwarzenegger and George W. Bush, and is now chief strategist of the Serve America Movement, which wants to end the two-party dominance in Washington, was even blunter.

"My hope of them confronting him on whatever the issue might be that is sort of contrary to tradition or even decency is long dead," he said when asked about the likelihood of congressional Republicans taking on Trump not just in word but deed over the Khashoggi killing. 

Read more: Is Donald Trump the Democratic Party's 'unwitting unifier'?

Saudi Arabia no core issue for Trump base

But for Jamie Fly, a former foreign policy adviser to Senator Marco Rubio, the issue is far from settled. While he concedes that it is unlikely that the lame-duck Congress will take action, the new Congress, including many Republican lawmakers, may well force the issue.

"If the administration continues to act like there is no problem here and that business can go on as usual, I think they are going to be headed to a confrontation of some sort with Congress," said Fly, now a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund.

He noted that unlike many other issues, such as immigration, how to deal with Saudi Arabia was not a primary concern for Trump's political base, which could make it easier for Republicans to break with him on the issue. In fact, he added, there have been widespread misgivings about close US-Saudi ties, the arms sales and the Yemen conflict among both Democrats and Republicans for years.

"I don't think this is an issue where it is difficult for Republicans to take a stand," said Fly.   

U.S. President Donald Trump holds a chart depicting military hardware sales as he welcomes Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington.

Trump has vowed to not let the Khashoggi murder spoil the business ties with the Saudis

 US denies it will extradite Erdogan foe Fethullah Gulen to reduce heat on Saudis

Towards the next outrage

AEI's Ornstein shares the view that Saudi Arabia is not a huge issue for Trump voters. But given the GOP's record and the potential hurdles a bill would face, he remains deeply skeptical that any significant legislative action that would sanction Saudi Arabia will succeed in the current or the incoming Congress.

"Almost anything Congress will do, the president will veto," said Ornstein, which would then require two-thirds of both chambers of Congress to be overridden. "I hope I am pleasantly surprised and I am wrong, but I don't see anything at this point — nothing in history — that would support that."

What's more, predicted former GOP strategist Galen, "Given the speed of political news these days and the sort of string out outrages – next week we will be onto something else."

Said Ornstein: "What we have is a lot of sound, a lot of fury and no action."

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