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Lack of Khashoggi intelligence forges ‘unusual alliance’ in the Senate

Saudi Arabia was in the spotlight as the Senate considered U.S. support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen and intelligence about Jamal Khashoggi's murder. While Secretary of State Mike Pompeo helped lead the briefing, CIA director Gina Haspel's absence stunned members of both parties. Amidst the drama, three senators pushed for legislation to protect the special counsel. Lisa Desjardins reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    This has been a big day in both branches of the U.S. Congress.

    On the House side, Democrats nominated Nancy Pelosi to be speaker when they take majority control next year. But with 32 votes against her in her own caucus, she has work to do to win over enough votes when the full House votes in January.

    Pelosi acknowledged that and calls for new leadership, but said today's vote was a big boost.

  • Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.:

    I'm talking about scores of members of Congress who just gave me a vote, are giving me a vote of confidence. And that is where our focus is. Are there dissenters? Yes, but I expect to have a powerful vote as we go forward.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Pelosi vanquished several would-be challengers to prevail today. She was speaker once before, and is the only woman to ever hold the position.

    On the Senate side, the Trump administration touched off a new storm of criticism over the killing of Saudi writer Jamal Khashoggi. It began when two top officials showed up for a briefing, but a third didn't.

    Congressional correspondent Lisa Desjardins begins our coverage.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    In the basement of the Capitol, senators arrive for a tense and critical briefing, two topics, U.S. support of the Saudi-led war against Houthi rebels in Yemen and the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in October.

    Multiple outlets have reported the CIA believes Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered the assassination. But CIA Director Gina Haspel wasn't at today's briefing, something infuriating both parties.

  • Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J.:

    It's outrageous that the Senate can be stonewalled from hearing from the CIA director.

  • Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill.:

    I cannot recall a briefing on such a sensitive measure where we have been denied access to the intelligence agencies of the United States.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, often an ally of the president's, has broken with him on Mohammed bin Salman, or MBS, and says he will withhold his vote on other issues to try to get answers.

  • Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.:

    I'm talking about any key vote. Anything that you need me for to get out of town, I ain't doing it until we hear from the CIA.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who helped lead the briefing, didn't answer why the CIA director was absent.

  • Mike Pompeo:

    I was asked to be here, and here I am.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    It is a critical moment. Saudi issues have forged an unusual alliance between some Senate Republicans like Mike Lee of Utah and independent Bernie Sanders. They co-authored a resolution to end U.S. support of Saudi action in Yemen.

  • Sen. Mike Lee, R-UT:

    The passage of a few months has allowed people to think about this a little bit more, has allowed people to see the war progressing, continuing to result in a lot of awful casualties, including casualties of a lot of innocent civilians and children.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Pompeo defended Trump administration policy.

  • Mike Pompeo:

    We are on the cusp of allowing the U.N. envoy Martin Griffiths to, in December, gather the parties together and hopefully get a cease-fire in Yemen, something we have diplomatically been striving for, for months.

    And so it is the view of the administration, Secretary Mattis and myself, that passing a resolution at this point undermines that.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    As for the Saudi crown prince, Pompeo told senators:

  • Mike Pompeo:

    There is no direct reporting connecting the crown prince to order to murder of Jamal Khashoggi.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    But several Republicans were unswayed.

  • Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz.:

    And I think we all know what the truth is, that if he wasn't directly involved, he certainly knew of it. And the intelligence agents that we are sanctioning that we say were involved are under his direction.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    In a sign of some defiance towards the White House and Saudi Arabia, in the just the past two hours, the Senate voted overwhelmingly to take that Sanders-Lee resolution to end U.S. summit of fighting in Yemen out of committee.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, Lisa, what happens next in the Senate on the issue of Saudi Arabia?

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    We have to keep a very close eye.

    What we expect is a vote likely next week. It's remotely possible this week, but more likely next week, to see if they will get a full debate on this resolution. I expect we will. Then, after that, it could be open to amendments. That's when we could have a free-for-all.

    Some like Lindsey Graham are saying they want to change this idea, add things, tweak things to bring more Republican support on board. Today, 14 Republicans voted to try and get to this resolution. That's significant, a very big difference from a similar vote that happened in March.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Now, this wasn't the only drama today in the Senate. There was this effort to protect the Russia investigation, the special counsel, Robert Mueller. There was a bipartisan move to do that. Tell us what happened.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    That's right.

    Senators Coons, Flake, and others had a bill that would make sure that only the — the only reasons to fire the special prosecutor in this case would be for cause, essentially, and that not everyone could do it.

    There was a hope that this would actually get a vote today. But, no, Senator Jeff Flake tried to bring it up. There you see Robert Mueller. And it was objected to on the floor by another Republican, Mike Lee.

    That's important, Judy, because now the only way that this Mueller protection bill can get a vote is if Senator McConnell allows it to get a vote, or if every senator agrees. That's because of how Senate rules work. And it seems that Senator McConnell doesn't want to bring it up at this time, even though it may, in fact, have a majority of Senate votes.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Now, you were telling us this has a direct connection to another important vote today in the Senate. This was a down-to-the-wire vote on a controversial judicial nominee. And it was a difficult vote for the only African-American Republican in the Senate.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    That's exactly right.

    I mentioned Senator Jeff Flake. He has said he will not vote in favor of any judicial nominee until the Mueller investigation bill gets a vote. So he was a no at the go, at the start on this judicial nominee.

    This man's name is Thomas Farr. It's important to talk about him. He has been nominated for this Eastern District in North Carolina. Since 2006, he's controversial, Judy. I want to show you a couple of things about him. He is currently an attorney. He works on workplace and employment law in North Carolina.

    And you see one of the issues with him is that he has worked for years for stricter voting laws, including identification and other laws in North Carolina that courts have found targeted minorities. He also worked for Jesse Helms' Senate campaign at one point, which sent out postcards telling African-Americans that they were not eligible to vote, falsely.

    So he's very controversial, but the president supports him. Today, it came down to one vote. The vote was 49-50, and the outstanding vote was Tim Scott of South Carolina. I sat in that Senate chamber, Judy, as Tim Scott sat in the back on the phone trying to sort out his vote. In the end, he came out. He was a yes moving forward on this nomination.

    But he told our Saher Khan that he hasn't decide his final vote yet. That's a very big issue, of course, about how you perceive race and how the Republican Party perceives issues of race. And I think it will be decided tomorrow, when we have the final vote on this nominee.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, as you say, Lisa, all three of these issues revolve around one thing, and that is the president.

    We know Republicans in the Senate and in the House have had their frustrations with the president. Are we seeing that frustration turn into something more?

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    I think that's right.

    We're seeing the senators be a little bit more bold here on Saudi Arabia. However, one good longtime Senate source of mine who has sort of gone both ways on the president, one lawmaker told me, it has to be a very serious matter for us to take on the president directly, and what you see this week, clearly, we feel they are serious matters, things like Saudi Arabia.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Maybe some kind of page has been turned. We will see.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    We will find out.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Lisa Desjardins, thank you.

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