Senators have confirmed to reporters that the White House blocked CIA Director Gina Haspel from attending a Senate briefing on Saudi Arabia, Yemen and the violent murder of Washington Post writer Jamal Khashoggi on Wednesday.
“The most persuasive presence at this briefing was an empty chair—a chair that should have been occupied by Gina Haspel, head of the Central Intelligence Agency,” Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-IL) told reporters, according to several outlets, including the Daily Beast. “We were told at this briefing that it was at the direction of the White House that she not attend.”
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary James Mattis reportedly told senators that the White House stopped Haspel from attending, a surprising move, given Haspel is the only member of the administration who has heard the audio recording of Khashoggi’s murder.
While the U.S. has issued sanctions against the Saudi officials who were found to be responsible for Khashoggi’s murder and dismemberment, critics are not convinced the Saudi crown prince — who has denied knowledge of the scheme — was not involved in the attack. Trump himself has waffled on whether he believes Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman’s denials, but, in the same breath, declared last week that the U.S. will stand in support of the kingdom.
The Senate briefing on Wednesday was supposed to quell concerns of senators who back the Saudis’ attacks on Yemen and snuff out support for efforts to bring a vote to the Senate floor on ending the U.S.-backed Saudi-Emirati war in Yemen. But the briefing did the opposite for some, like Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN), who is chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and typically a supporter of U.S. involvement in Yemen.
“I have laid on the railroad tracks to keep us from doing things that I believe are against our national interest, as it relates to Saudi Arabia,” Corker said, according to the Daily Beast. “But I may now be willing to get on the [Yemen] vehicle, knowing it can be amended, to figure out some way for us to send the appropriate message to Saudi Arabia that appropriately displays American values and American national interest.”
“The White House can fix this this afternoon. They can fix it in an hour. The secretary of state can fix it in an hour,” Corker added. “It’s like we’re dancing on the head of a pin to keep from—look, [MBS] is responsible for this death.”
It’s not the first time this week the White House has been hostile regarding information about the Khashoggi tape. During a press briefing on Tuesday, National Security Adviser John Bolton was dismissive of reporters who asked whether he had heard the audio.
“Unless you speak Arabic, what are you going to get from it?” Bolton said. “You want me to listen to it? What am I going to learn from ― I mean, if they were speaking Korean, I wouldn’t learn anything more from it, either.”