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Republicans split with Donald Trump over Khashoggi killing

US lawmakers have accused the president of hiding the truth behind what happened to murdered Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi
Trump has vowed to stand by Saudi Arabia despite pressure over Khashoggi's murder (Reuters)

Republican politicians in the United States have split with Donald Trump over Jamal Khashoggi's killing, publicly questioning and raising concerns about the US president's continued embrace of Saudi Arabia in light of the gruesome murder.

Last week, in a meandering written statement, Trump vowed to remain a "steadfast partner" of Saudi Arabia, saying both Saudi King Salman and the country's de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, deny having any knowledge of the journalist's killing.

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The US president has also repeatedly cast doubts on the CIA's assertion that bin Salman, also known as MBS, ordered Khashoggi's murder.

On Sunday, several US senators - including members of Trump's own Republican party - rejected his attempts to discredit the US intelligence agency's findings, however.

"I disagree with the president's assessment. It's inconsistent with the intelligence I've seen" implicating the crown prince, Republican Senator Mike Lee said on NBC's Meet the Press television show.

"Look, the president is not being honest with the country about the murder of Jamal Khashoggi," said Democratic Congressman Adam Schiff on CNN's State of the Union programme. "What's driving this?"

Schiff, who is set to become chairman of the House Intelligence Committee when Democrats regain control of the chamber in January, has promised investigations into the Khashoggi case, as well as whether Trump's personal financial interests are dictating his Saudi policy.

The critical comments hint at a growing divide between the Trump administration and US lawmakers from the country's two major parties, who have been at odds over the US's response to the Khashoggi case.

A prominent columnist for the Washington Post, Khashoggi was murdered inside his country's consulate in Istanbul on 2 October.

Saudi officials have repeatedly denied that the crown prince had any knowledge of the plan to murder Khashoggi or cover up the crime, but human rights groups, journalists, UN experts and others have pointed the finger at MBS, saying it's impossible he was not involved.

Since Trump promised to stand by Riyadh, several US lawmakers have called for Congress to take additional action to get to the bottom of what happened.

Several Republicans raise questions

On the weekend, Republican Senator Joni Ernst told CNN that the US needs "to look into this further," even though he said Saudi Arabia is a strategic US partner

"We also are a very strong nation when it comes to human rights, when it comes to the rule of law," Ernst said. "And if there are indicators that the prince was involved in this murder then we need to absolutely consider further action."

Republican Senator Ben Sasse, a frequent Trump critic, criticised the US president's stance on Khashoggi's killing as "weak".

"Making the realist case is a different thing than being so weak that we failed to tell the truth," Sasse said on Fox News Sunday.

MBS "contributed to murdering somebody abroad and it is not strength to sort of mumble past that," he continued. "Strength is telling the truth even when it's hard."

The president is not being honest with the country about the murder of Jamal Khashoggi ... What's driving this?

- Democratic congressman Adam Schiff

Other Republican senators, including Lindsey Graham, Rand Paul and Bob Corker, have been unsparing in their assessments of Saudi Arabia's involvement in Khashoggi's killing, saying MBS must have been involved.

"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," Corker, the current chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who is set to retire next year, wrote on Twitter after Trump's comments on Tuesday.

Graham also said that while international diplomacy requires dealing with "bad actors and imperfect situations," the US should not lose its "moral voice" at the world stage.

"While Saudi Arabia is a strategic ally, the behavior of the Crown Prince – in multiple ways – has shown disrespect for the relationship and made him, in my view, beyond toxic," he wrote on Twitter.