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Bipartisan group of senators calls for investigation into Jamal Khashoggi's disappearance

Alan He contributed reporting.

A bipartisan group of senators sent a letter to President Trump on Wednesday, triggering an investigation into the disappearance of Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist and columnist for The Washington Post who has not been seen since he entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul last week. The Turkish government has claimed that Khashoggi was killed in the consulate, on the orders of the Saudi government.

The letter, written by Republican Sens. Bob Corker and Lindsey Graham and Democratic Sens. Bob Menendez and Patrick Leahy, called for Mr. Trump to investigate Khashoggi's disappearance under the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, which allows the president to impose sanctions on a person or country that has engaged in a human rights violation. The investigation is triggered by a letter to the president from the chair and ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Corker and Menendez, respectively.

Once Mr. Trump has determined "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," according to the letter, he must report to the committee within 120 days with a decision on the imposition of retaliatory sanctions.

Corker spoke with reporters after the letter was released, and he emphasized that senators "specifically said it included the highest members of the regime" and could "absolutely" lead to U.S. sanctions targeting the Saudi Crown Prince,  Mohammad bin Salman Al Saud. 

Of the crown prince, who is often referred to as "MBS," Corker went on to say, "MBS is a person of the future. He's got a vision for the country that I think is extraordinary for a young leader. At the same time whether its steps they've taken in the region, this in particular..., we need to push back on activities like this if they have occurred. We need to nip it in the bud. This is what this is intended to do, to send a strong message from us. It's my hope that it doesn't lead to the top. Indications are that if in fact he was murdered, it could well do so."  

As Corker suggested, the letter does indicate that the strengthening alliance between the Trump administration and the Saudi government may not preclude imposing sanctions.

"Our expectation is that in making your determination you will consider any relevant information, including with respect to the highest ranking officials in the Government of Saudi Arabia," the letter said.

Mr. Trump told reporters earlier on Wednesday that his administration has been in contact with the "highest level" of officials in the Saudi government, and had asked about Khashoggi's disappearance.

"I have to find out who did It. But people saw him go in but they didn't see him come out as they understand it. We are going to take a serious look at it. It is a terrible thing," Mr. Trump said, about whether he believed the Saudi government had authorized the killing of Khashoggi.

The letter to Mr. Trump was also signed by Sens. Marco Rubio, R-Florida; Ben Cardin, D-Maryland; John Barrasso, R-Wyoming; Chris Murphy, D-Connecticut; Jeff Flake, R-Arizona; Tim Kaine, D-Virginia; Cory Gardner, R-Colorado; Ed Markey, D-Massachusetts; Johnny Isakson, R-Georgia; Jeff Merkley, D-Oregon; Todd Young, R-Indiana; Jeanne Shaheen, D-New Hampshire; Rob Portman, R-Ohio; Cory Booker, D-New Jersey; Ron Johnson, R-Wisconsin; Chris Coons, D-Delaware; Jim Risch, R-Idaho; and Tom Udall, D-New Mexico.

  • Grace Segers

    Grace Segers is a politics reporter for CBS News Digital.