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News Brief: G20, Saudi Arabia Investigation And Afghanistan Update


Senators from both parties sent a message loud and clear to both Saudi Arabia and to the Trump administration.


They voted to move forward on a resolution limiting American support for the Saudis in their intervention in the civil war in Yemen. This comes after the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in October. To be precise, that killing is not related to the war, but the war itself has troubled many lawmakers in both parties for quite some time. The vote comes hours after Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo defended the U.S.-Saudi relationship.

GREENE: And NPR's Tim Mak has been following all of this and joins us this morning.

Hi there, Tim.

TIM MAK, BYLINE: Hey, there.

GREENE: Let's start with a little bit of quick context. I mean, the United States has been assisting the Saudis in this conflict in Yemen against Iranian-backed rebels in that country. And human rights groups have been saying this is a massive crisis - I mean, millions of people facing famine. So what exactly does this measure in the Senate do?

MAK: So the Senate resolution is a bipartisan bill. It would direct the president to remove U.S. military forces from the hostilities in and around Yemen, except for those operations directed at al-Qaida. So it passed 63-37, which...

GREENE: Which is significant in a pretty divided Senate, right?

MAK: (Laughter) Yes. This is a very narrowly divided Senate. It counts as pretty overwhelming support. You just have to look at the lead co-sponsors on this legislation. You've got, on the one hand, conservative Mike Lee and on the other hand self-proclaimed democratic socialist Bernie Sanders, and they agree on this.

So senators voted on this issue despite public and private pleas from Secretary of State Pompeo not to proceed with it. He argued that it would undermine future peace talks. But supporters of the legislation argue that the civil war in Yemen is a humanitarian catastrophe, as you said, and that there's no need for the U.S. to be helping the Saudis in this conflict and that Congress hasn't actually authorized military force in this case.

GREENE: Well, as Steve mentioned, I mean, there has been concern about U.S. involvement in this conflict for some time now in Congress. And haven't senators voted on this before?

MAK: Yeah, that's right. This resolution was actually voted on in March, and it failed to pass this initial procedural hurdle that it's now passed. But the killing of Khashoggi in October appears to have really changed the calculations of lawmakers.


TIM KAINE: We're just not buying it. We think that the responsibility has to be laid at MBS and the king. And the president has not yet been willing to do it, but we need to do it.

GREENE: All right, that was Senator Tim Kaine speaking there.

And Tim, I understand that - I mean, lawmakers like Kaine were in a briefing with Pompeo and Mattis yesterday. They were arguing, I mean, aggressively against this vote. What is their basic argument from the White House?

MAK: The basic argument is, with regards to Yemen, that it's in America's interests to be involved in that conflict. They also discussed the intelligence around the killing of Khashoggi and said that the intelligence they reviewed did not directly implicate the crown prince. Here's Pompeo on that.


MIKE POMPEO: There is no direct reporting connecting the crown prince to the order to murder Jamal Khashoggi.

MAK: But previous intelligence reviewed by senators actually suggests that the crown prince was responsible. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said that it was, quote, "basically certified" that he was involved. And the briefing backfired in some ways because lawmakers were especially upset that CIA Director Gina Haspel was not there to brief them on these intelligence matters.

GREENE: The person in the administration who theoretically knows the most about this case - why wasn't she there?

MAK: Well, senators have told reporters that the White House was directly involved in blocking her.

GREENE: Wow. All right, a lot to cover here.

NPR's Tim Mak, we really appreciate it.

MAK: Thanks a lot.


GREENE: All right. So a leader who has been no fan of multilateralism is heading to a pretty significant multilateral summit.

INSKEEP: Yes, the Group of 20 summit, the world's 20 largest economies, more or less. It is true that President Trump is not a fan of multilateral deals. But he is a fan of big, showy one-on-one meetings, and he's going to have some. Among several others, there's a dinner scheduled with China's president, Xi Jinping, and there's a possible one-on-one with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

GREENE: And NPR's Tamara Keith is in Argentina. She'll be covering all of this.

Hi there, Tam.


GREENE: So President Trump has been pretty famous at some of these summits for lecturing allies and angering people. Is that what we're expecting here?

KEITH: You know, you never can tell. But, certainly, it wouldn't be a surprise if he did. One expert at the Brookings Institution who was giving us a preview of this suggested that traditional American allies in Europe especially are prepared for and expecting some instability because of the wild card that is President Trump.

GREENE: Well, let's discuss this working dinner with the president of China. I mean, this is so interesting because there's been a trade conflict with China that is about to escalate, in theory - right?

KEITH: Exactly. So the United States and China are in the midst of a trade fight. Come January 1 - there are currently 10 percent tariffs that the Trump administration has imposed on Chinese goods; those are set to amp up to 25 percent if they can't come up with some kind of an agreement to head that off. And of course, if the U.S. imposes a 25 percent tariff, China will of course retaliate, further escalating what has be - (inaudible) war. There are sticking points on intellectual property, forced technology transfers, tariffs, other barriers and things like that.

Now, is a deal possible? It depends on which White House adviser you ask and when. Larry Kudlow, the economic adviser, said that the president told him he was optimistic about a deal. The national security adviser, John Bolton, is trying to temper expectations. Experts who've been watching this say there hasn't been enough groundwork laid to really have a true deal. But that doesn't mean there couldn't be some kind of headline agreement.

GREENE: Well, then you have this possible meeting with Vladimir Putin. I am fascinated by this. Whenever there's talk of Trump and Putin getting together, I mean, there's so many reasons to be watching it carefully - and now even more because Russia is involved in this conflict with Ukraine that's causing a lot of people in Europe to wonder if this might be headed towards war.

KEITH: Right. And so this conflict is - over the weekend, Russian vessels reportedly fired on Ukrainian ships in the Black Sea, seizing three vessels and injuring Ukrainian sailors. And the U.S., including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, has strongly condemned this. And President Trump told The Washington Post. Well, maybe I won't have the meeting. Who knows? I don't like that aggression, he told the Post. As of now, the meeting is still on. One question that always comes up with President Trump when he meets with President Putin is, will he publicly push back on Putin, or will he accept Putin's denials? - because Putin is denying this and saying it's all Ukraine's fault.

GREENE: Well, I mean, another leader at this summit, the Saudi crown prince, which also is interesting given what we have already talked about - I mean, a lot of concern in the United States among American lawmakers and others over what seems to be his involvement in the death of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Is there a chance the two of them will actually meet and have contact with one another?

KEITH: They aren't scheduled for a formal bilateral meeting. But at these big events where there are leaders of every nation, you never know what might happen on the sidelines or what words might be exchanged in one of these photo ops or dinners or cultural events that they'll be having. So we just don't know, and we may not find out until later.

GREENE: What position has the administration been in? I mean, with this vote in the Senate yesterday, it's quite a rebuke to the Trump administration when it comes to the Saudi-U.S. relationship. And this was not just Democrats; this was a real bipartisan effort in the Senate to send what seems like a pretty clear message about, you know, a big central part of President Trump's foreign policy.

KEITH: You know, Republicans and Democrats alike on Capitol Hill have been very frustrated with the way the Trump administration has handled the murder or the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, sort of the dismissive nature of the way the Trump administration is approaching it. This rebuke by the Senate, even though it is about Yemen, is a reminder of another time where the Senate sort of went against the wishes of the Trump administration and passed legislation sort of forcing their hand on sanctions on Russia related to election interference. And the Trump administration had said - oh, no, no - we don't need you to do this. And Congress went right ahead and did it.

GREENE: NPR's Tamara Keith in Argentina.

Tam, we appreciate it. Thanks as always.

KEITH: You're welcome.


GREENE: All right. The Pentagon has identified three American service members killed in a roadside bomb in Afghanistan this week.

INSKEEP: The deadliest attack on U.S. troops in the country in 2018. Another American soldier was killed Saturday in a separate incident when an Afghan soldier accidentally shot him. All of this comes as the U.S. is trying to get the Taliban to agree to peace talks, as they've been trying to do for years. Here's Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaking about the Taliban in July.


POMPEO: They cannot wait us out, and we're beginning to see the results both on the battlefield, where the Taliban's momentum is slowing, and in the prospects for peace with them.

GREENE: All right, reporter Jennifer Glasse is with us from Kabul. And Jennifer, does something stand out about this fresh violence, this attack on U.S. troops?

JENNIFER GLASSE: Well, I think the saddest thing is how common it is here. They were killed by a roadside bomb. Their vehicle ran over a roadside bomb that killed those three soldiers, a contractor and injured three others. And roadside bombs and suicide bombers are the biggest cause of injuries and deaths here in Afghanistan and so all too common - and really, a menace all over the country. They render roads unsafe. Also, they render, you know, fields and villages - it is really the weapon of choice of many of the groups fighting here. And of course, the Taliban claiming responsibility for that attack on American forces in Ghazni city - just outside Ghazni city.

GREENE: Well - and you have Mike Pompeo suggesting months ago that they're making progress in terms of the Taliban. Is it a time now to really question that?

GLASSE: I think the Taliban are fighting all over, you can see from the recent attacks. The Taliban attacked here in Kabul last night. They attacked - that was in retaliation for a U.S. airstrike in Helmand overnight on Tuesday. We've seen them attack around the country.

GREENE: All right, reporter Jennifer Glasse updating us on the situation in Afghanistan.

Jennifer, we appreciate it.

GLASSE: Good to talk to you.

(SOUNDBITE OF TESK'S "LEGO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.
Tim Mak is NPR's Washington Investigative Correspondent, focused on political enterprise journalism.