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Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez Weighs In On U.S.-Saudi Arabia Relationship And Yemen

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia is center stage on Capitol Hill today. In a closed session, senators heard testimony from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. The pair were briefing senators on the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi and on U.S. involvement in the war in Yemen next door to Saudi Arabia.

New Jersey Senator Robert Menendez is ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He was at the briefing today. He's on the line now. Hi, Senator.

ROBERT MENENDEZ: Hi. Good to be with you.

KELLY: Good to have you with us. Take both those matters on the table today - the U.S. role in the war in Yemen and what we know about the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Did you hear anything from Mattis or Pompeo that persuades you that current U.S. policy toward Saudi Arabia is the right policy toward Saudi Arabia?

MENENDEZ: No. First of all, as it relates to Jamal Khashoggi, the fact that Gina Haspel, the CIA director, was not there despite bipartisan calls for her to be there and to testify as to what her agency and other intelligence agencies' conclusions were was pretty outrageous. My view - it's a cover-up of a critical question that we have as it relates to U.S.-Saudi relationships.

KELLY: Why? Why is it so important to you to hear from her when you had two other top administration officials there?

MENENDEZ: Because only she listened to the Khashoggi tapes. Only she and the members of the intelligence community did all of the intelligence gathering through all of its methods, listened to all of the relevant elements of it and came to a conclusion. I don't really need someone to somehow characterize her testimony. I'd rather hear her testimony, and that's what members wanted. And the administration denied us from having that opportunity.

KELLY: What explanation were you given for why she wasn't there?

MENENDEZ: We weren't given one. We pressed the secretary of state and the secretary of defense as to why she was not there, and they punted to the White House, and the White House gave us no answer. And so to me, it's very clear that the published reports that Gina Haspel and the CIA have come to the conclusion with a high degree of confidence, which is generally the highest determination they give to an analysis, that the Saudi crown prince was involved in ordering the murder of Jamal Khashoggi is something they didn't want members to hear directly or to have verified directly.

KELLY: I'll state for the record the CIA put out a statement this afternoon denying that she was instructed not to attend. So let me set that matter or that mystery to the side for the moment.

MENENDEZ: She didn't make it. I know that much. She didn't make it. I don't know who said, go; don't go. But she was clearly asked by myself as a ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee by the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee...

KELLY: Right.

MENENDEZ: ...By bipartisan members on both sides, and she wasn't there.

KELLY: OK. Let me turn you to Yemen. This afternoon, you all voted to advance a resolution that would end U.S. military support to the Saudi-led coalition. Secretary Pompeo argued hard against this. As I said, it was a closed-door session, so I didn't hear what he had to say to you. But he wrote a piece in The Wall Street Journal today saying, this is just going to help Iran, and it's going to undercut a key ally, Saudi Arabia. Why is he wrong?

MENENDEZ: Well, he's wrong because - number one is the Saudis will still have the concern of Iran. They will continue to push back on Iran's influence in the region. The Saudis will still have the concerns of international terrorism as it affects their country. They're not going to walk away from making a fight on those issues.

And he's wrong because I originally did not support the resolution that came before the Senate once again today. I actually voted to table it to give the administration the chance to show me that in fact their policies and our engagement and the Department of Defense with the Saudi-led coalition was actually leading to less civilian casualties and a pathway towards a political solution. And they failed.

KELLY: Senator, thank you very much.

MENENDEZ: Thank you.

KELLY: Senator Robert Menendez, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.