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Senators pressure Trump to investigate disappearance of Saudi journalist

President Donald Trump is facing new pressure to investigate the disappearance of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi and determine whether to impose sanctions on those responsible after receiving a letter from a bipartisan group of senators Wednesday.

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Zachary Cohen, Elizabeth Landers
Jeremy Herb, CNN
(CNN) — President Donald Trump is facing new pressure to investigate the disappearance of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi and determine whether to impose sanctions on those responsible after receiving a letter from a bipartisan group of senators Wednesday.

The letter, which triggers an "investigation and Global Magnitsky sanctions determination" was penned by the top Republican and Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, chairman Sen. Bob Corker and ranking member Sen. Bob Menendez, along with the leaders of the appropriations subcommittee for the State Department, Sen. Lindsey Graham and Democrat Sen. Patrick Leahy.

"The Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act requires the President, upon receipt of a request from the Chairman and Ranking Member of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, to determine whether a foreign person is responsible for an extrajudicial killing, torture, or other gross violation of internationally recognized human rights against an individual exercising freedom of expression, and report to the Committee within 120 days with a determination and a decision on the imposition of sanctions on that foreign person or persons," the letter states.

"We request that you make a determination on the imposition of sanctions pursuant to the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act with respect to any foreign person responsible for such a violation related to Mr. Khashoggi," it adds.

The letter was also signed by Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Ben Cardin (D-Md.), John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), Tim Kaine (D-Va.), Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), Ed Markey (D-Mass.), Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Todd Young (R-Ind.), Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), Rob Portman (R-Ohio), Cory Booker (D-NJ), Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), Chris Coons (D-Del.), Jim Risch (R-Idaho) and Tom Udall (D-N.M).

Prior to the letter's release, senators were given access to a two-page classified report on Khashoggi, according to a Senate aide. Senators can read the classified material, which was updated today, in the Senate's secure facility, according to the aide.

Members of the Gang of Eight are being briefed in more detail: House Intelligence ranking Democrat Rep. Adam Schiff said he had been briefed on the matter, and Senate Intelligence ranking Democrat Mark Warner said he expected a briefing today.

One-fifth of the Senate — all members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee besides Sen. Rand Paul — signed the letter triggering an investigation and Global Magnitsky sanctions determination regarding Khashoggi's disappearance.

"The entire Senate Foreign Relations Committee, sans Rand Paul, and the relevant appropriators all agreed to sign this request. The administration would be foolish not to follow the law here by rejecting their request," one Senate aide told CNN.

Asked if the letter puts pressure on the Trump administration, Corker responded, "Oh it does, of course."

"It's not intended though as a shot at them, it's intended to put in place ... it's the forcing mechanism to ensure that we use all the resources available to get the bottom of this and if in fact at the very highest levels of Saudi Arabia they have been involved in doing this, that appropriate steps will be taken to sanction them," Corker added.

A little over a week ago, Khashoggi, a former Saudi royal insider who became a critic of the regime of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, walked into the consulate general in Istanbul, intending to get paperwork that would allow him to marry his Turkish fiancée. She hasn't seen him since.

Since then, officials and journalists have scrambled to piece together the story of what happened to him.

Turkish authorities have privately said they believe Khashoggi was killed inside the consulate, a startling allegation that is firmly denied by the Saudis. Closed-circuit television footage, flight trackers, intercepted communications and even rumors of a bone saw have served as pieces of a puzzle that has spurred a diplomatic outcry.

In the latest developments on Wednesday, Turkish security officials concluded that the "highest levels of the royal court" in Saudi Arabia ordered the assassination of Khashoggi, according to a senior official cited by The New York Times.

The kingdom's staunchest Western allies -- including the United States, where Khashoggi had applied for permanent residency -- have urged Saudi Arabia to come clean.

Trump said Wednesday that he's been in touch with the "highest levels" of the Saudi government about Khashoggi's case and expressed concerns about his possible murder. He said his administration was pressing the Saudi government to reveal more about the incident.

"We're demanding everything. We want to see what's going on here. It's a bad situation," Trump said in the Oval Office.

But he stopped short of saying whether he believed the Saudis have knowledge about his whereabouts, or may have played a role in his disappearance, stating that not enough was known to make a determination.

Following the letter's release, Corker specifically noted that the sanctions could affect the highest levels of the Saudi regime.

"It's a very strong signal I think from the foreign relations committee. Again it's an act that we can take without passing legislation. It is a forcing mechanism. I don't look at this in any way to try to cross the bows of the administration. I don't. I do look at it certainly has a shot across the bow at Saudi Arabia and these are very serious steps," he said.

Corker also said that the administration was not given a heads up about the letter prior to its release to reporters, adding that he was unsure about how Trump might respond given his close relationship with the Saudi crown prince.

"This is a step that we are taking that we can take unilaterally that is a forcing mechanism and it does mean that in a serious way an investigation has to take place. And if in fact at the highest levels they have been involved in the murder of a journalist who just happened to write against some of the things they are doing in their country, they will be under tremendous pressure to follow this wherever it goes," he said.

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