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Corker says he believes Washington Post journalist was ‘murdered’ by Saudi Arabia

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WASHINGTON — Lawmakers from both parties are publicly demanding that the U.S. government hold Saudi Arabia accountable for any role it played in the disappearance of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was last seen entering a Saudi consulate in Turkey on Oct. 2.

“My instincts say that there is no question that the Saudi government did this, and my instincts say that they murdered him,” Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tenn., told reporters at the Capitol on Thursday, adding that White House adviser Jared Kushner’s close relationship with the Saudi government should not be an impediment to potential consequences.

“I understand that there’s a lot of stock placed on that relationship, but if they’re murdering American citizens, then it doesn’t matter what our relationship has been,” Corker said.

At the White House, President Donald Trump continued to say that Khashoggi’s disappearance was a “terrible thing,” but that he does not favor suspending arms sales to Saudi Arabia as a form of retaliation.

“What happened is a terrible thing, assuming that happened,” Trump said. “Maybe we’ll be pleasantly surprised, but somehow I doubt it. … A thing like that should not happen.”

Democratic Rep. Gerry Connolly, a senior member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee who represents the northern Virginia district where Khashoggi lived, accused the Trump administration of fostering a “culture of impunity” with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman as he has gained power under his father, King Salman.

“I want to be very clear: I would not lay this tragic development at the doorstep of Donald Trump, as if he had something to do with it,” Connolly said — but added that the administration has “wittingly or unwittingly” led the Saudis to conclude there is “no constraint on them at all.”

The Washington Post reported Wednesday that the U.S. government received intelligence intercepts indicating that the crown prince had ordered lieutenants to lure Khashoggi from the United States, where he was a legal resident, to Saudi Arabia so that he could be detained.

Khashoggi checked his cellphone just before entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul last week, but did not read messages sent to him minutes later, according to screenshots obtained by NBC News.

“If the U.S. intelligence community had advance warning that an abduction or a kidnapping or illegal detention or worse was in fact being planned and plotted by the Saudi government, and that harm would clearly fall on Mr. Khashoggi, they had an obligation to inform him in advance,” Connolly said in an interview with NBC News.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said Thursday that he had a disappointing conversation with the Saudi ambassador to the U.S., and that if the Saudis were involved in Khashoggi’s disappearance it would be “a game-changer” in the relationship between the two countries. On Wednesday, he warned there would be “hell to pay” if the Saudi government were responsible.

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In key Senate race, popularity squares off against party loyalty after Kavanaugh fight

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Phil Bredesen could be on the verge of doing something no Tennessee Democrat has done for nearly three decades — win a U.S. Senate race. But as the campaign heads into the final stretch, the popular former governor is realizing that even a strong independent resume and bipartisan respect throughout the state may not be enough to overcome the nation’s partisan divide.

On paper, Bredesen appears to be the perfect Democratic candidate for the Volunteer State. He has deep political roots across the state, having twice been elected governor and carrying all 95 counties in his last re-election.

He’s also a former Nashville mayor who was instrumental in the city’s revitalization and has worked closely with business interests all over the state. And, according to most public opinion polls, he remains more likable than his Republican opponent, Rep. Marsha Blackburn.

But as Election Day nears, Bredesen appears to be running up against his toughest opponent yet — partisan math. President Donald Trump carried this solidly red state by 26 points in 2016, and the last Democrat to win a Senate seat here was Al Gore in 1990.

And the national political conversation, particularly the bitter fight over the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, has put the stark Republican-Democrat divide back into the center of the race.

Personality or Party?

In addition to his own popularity, Bredesen is counting on voter concerns about his opponent to help get him over the finish line.

In a wide-ranging interview with NBC News, the former governor argued that Blackburn is too extreme for the type of Republican that Tennessee traditionally elects to the Senate.

“I drew an opponent who was way, way, way over there in terms of she saw her job as emblematic of whatever Donald Trump wanted to do, and that opens up the middle for me in a way that might not have if it was a Bob Corker, for example, in the race,” Bredesen said, referring to the Tennessee Republican who is retiring from the Senate at the end of the year and whose seat he and Blackburn are looking to fill.

Bredesen points to Blackburn’s hard-line positions on immigration, including her support of the wall along the southern border.

“I’m hoping obviously, the state, in the end, will come to its moderate roots that has been on display for so long,” Bredesen added. “If that happens, I’ll be the next senator.”

Tennessee does have a tradition of electing moderate Republicans steeped in policy. Republicans here point to consensus builders like former Sen. Howard Baker and current Sens. Lamar Alexander and Corker.

Blackburn, who has represented central Tennessee in Congress since 2003, and who prefers to be called congressman instead of congresswoman, has built a reputation in the House as a conservative ideologue, making abortion her central issue. She led the charge attacking Planned Parenthood when undercover conservative operatives filmed employees apparently discussing the sale of aborted fetus parts.

Blackburn’s campaign did not respond to requests for an interview.

“Blackburn reps a very different kind of Tennessee Republican,” said John Geer, dean of the College of Arts and Science at Vanderbilt University. “She’s good at attack politics, but she’s not a consensus builder.”

Betting that he could win the popularity contest, Bredesen has been focusing on other issues, attempting to define the race as a local contest between he and Blackburn.

The Kavanaugh Question

The personality contest was working out well for Bredesen through most of the summer, as polls showed him running even with Blackburn, if not slightly ahead.

But the explosive Senate fight over sexual assault allegations against Kavanaugh appears to have brought the partisan question back to the forefront.

Michael Sullivan, executive director of the Tennessee Republican Party, said Kavanaugh’s confirmation “energized Republicans significantly.”

“They come out and they think, ‘I’m going to get out and vote for Republicans because I want to see the president’s appointees, President Trump’s picks, confirmed,'” he said.

Just minutes before the Senate narrowly voted to confirm Kavanaugh, Bredesen announced that that he would have supported the nominee had he been in the Senate. It’s a decision he said was the right one even though it disappointed some of his supporters.

“I say there’s no way a Democrat can win Tennessee unless the candidate is Phil Bredesen and he runs a pitch-perfect campaign,” said a Tennessee political operative who was granted anonymity to speak candidly. “While he got off to a strong start, the way the Kavanaugh nomination was handled was far from pitch perfect.”

Even he concedes that the Kavanaugh debate changed the dynamics of the race. It reminded voters that it’s not just between Bredesen and Blackburn, but between Republicans and Democrats with control of the Senate potentially at stake.

“I think what’s happening is with the way in which the Kavanaugh hearings proceeded and sort of how much and how partisan they became and how bitter at the end, it tends to bring people back to their party,” Bredesen said. “People remember, ‘I’m a Republican,’ and people remember, ‘I’m a Democrat.’

Corker, who is close friends with Bredesen but endorsed Blackburn, told Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer that the Democrats’ handling of Kavanaugh changed the dynamics in the Tennessee Senate race and could hand the seat to Blackburn.

Despite the re-emergence of party loyalties, there are clear signs that the race remains close.

As early voting started throughout the state on Wednesday, Kavanaugh supporters gathered before dawn at a polling spot in an upper-class neighborhood in Nashville. Fresh off an endorsement by pop star Taylor Swift, a Nashville resident, the supporters listened to a Swift playlist, excited to vote for a Democrat that has a shot of winning in Tennessee.

Hugh, an independent voter and first-time campaign volunteer who declined to give his full name, said he felt compelled to sign up for Bredesen’s campaign because Blackburn is too close to Trump. “I think that she’s pretty much 100 percent with Trump, and I think that anybody who is 100 percent with any president is probably not looking at both sides of the coin and is not able to work across the aisle,” he said.

Polling shows the race close. A Vanderbilt University poll out on Thursday showed Bredesen ahead, 44 percent to 43 percent, while a Reuters poll on Wednesday showed Blackburn ahead, 47 percent to 44 percent.

Bredesen will need voters like Hugh, and a solid percentage of Republicans, if he has any chance of winning in the Volunteer State.

“I certainly hope I can continue to attract a reasonable amount of support among Independents,” Bredesen said.

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‘It certainly looks’ as though missing journalist Jamal Khashoggi is dead

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WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump said Thursday that the U.S. is awaiting for the completion of a Saudi investigation into the disappearance of journalist Jamal Khashoggi before deciding on an official response, but that it appears the missing reporter is dead.

“We’re waiting for some investigations and we’re waiting for the results,” Trump said as he departed for a campaign rally in Montana. “I think we’ll be making a statement, a very strong statement.”

Asked whether Khashoggi was dead, Trump said it was likely. “It certainly looks that way to me. It’s very sad,” he said.

He expressed similar concerns in an interview with The New York Times.

“Unless the miracle of all miracles happens, I would acknowledge that he’s dead,” Trump told the paper. “That’s based on everything — intelligence coming from every side.”

Trump also met with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who had just returned from meetings with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Saudi Arabia and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey earlier this week.

“I told President Trump this morning we ought to give them a few more days to complete that so that we, too, have a complete understanding of the facts surrounding that, at which point we can make a decision how or if the United States should respond to the incident surrounding Mr. Khashoggi,” Pompeo told reporters at the White House shortly after his meeting with the president.

“There are lots of stories out there about what has happened. We are going to allow the process to move forward,” he added.

Asked whether the Saudis, who have been accused of being responsible for Khashoggi’s disappearance, could be trusted to investigate, Pompeo expressed confidence in the kingdom.

“We’re all going to get to see the response from Saudi Arabia to this,” he said. “When we see that, we’ll get a chance to determine, all of us will get a chance to make a determination as to the credibility of the work that went into that, whether it’s truly accurate, fair and transparent in the very way they made a personal commitment to me, and ultimately made a personal commitment to the president when they spoke to him.”

He added that Saudi Arabia was also “an important strategic alliance of the United States — we need to be mindful of that as well.”

The secretary of state arrived in Turkey on Wednesday as reports of an alleged audio recording of Saudi officials killing Khashoggi were published, putting even more pressure on the White House to deliver a strong rebuke against the crown prince.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin confirmed on Twitter that after meeting with Trump and Pompeo Thursday morning, he would not be attending the Future Investment Initiative summit in Saudi Arabia as initially planned. Many media organizations and business leaders had pulled out of the meeting, dubbed “Davos in the Desert,” after Khashoggi’s disappearance.

Trump’s comments on Thursday were some of his strongest to date.

On Wednesday, Trump cast doubt on the leaked recording, telling reporters he was “not sure yet that it exists,” but that if it was, the U.S. had asked Turkey to share it.

And in an interview with The Associated Press the same day, he compared the accusations following Khashoggi’s disappearance to the sexual assault allegations against Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh.

“Here we go again with, you know, you’re guilty until proven innocent,” Trump said. “We just went through that with Justice Kavanaugh, and he was innocent all the way as far as I’m concerned.”

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Amid confusion, Interior Department says HUD official is not taking over as agency watchdog

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After a flurry of criticism from government watchdogs, and questions from Capitol Hill, the Interior Department on Thursday walked back reports that a Trump political appointee working in the Department of Housing and Urban Development was set to take over as the head inspector general.

An Interior Department spokeswoman said Deputy Interior Inspector General Mary Kendall’s job was safe hours before NBC News obtained a report from her office saying Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke violated department policy by allowing his wife to travel in government vehicles.

The report also said that Zinke and his wife Lolita traveled to Turkey and Greece with a protective detail costing taxpayers $25,000. The IG’s office said it found no prohibition against the practice though the U.S. Park Police had “no finalized policy governing the detail’s activities.”

The report noted that Zinke did not request the detail; the decision to provide protection was made by a U.S. Park Police supervisor.

Interior spokeswoman Heather Swift said, “The Inspector General report proves what we have known all along: the secretary follows all relevant laws and regulations and that all of his travel was reviewed and approved by career ethics officials and solicitors prior to travel.”

“Additionally, the secretary received the same exact legal advice from the solicitors as previous secretaries and he acted consistently,” Swift added. “The report even said so. Concerning the internal travel manual that has been updated to reflect the reality of the long standing situation.”

The confusion over the Interior watch dog started last Friday when HUD Secretary Ben Carson sent an email to his agency bidding a “fond farewell” to Assistant Secretary Suzanne Israel Tufts who he said would be the new “acting Inspector General” at the Interior Department.

The email was quickly leaked and raised alarm bells among those who view inspectors general as impartial, non-political investigators of government waste, fraud and abuse. Carson’s announcement came amid multiple IG investigations into Zinke.

Tufts is an attorney from New York who Trump appointed to be an Assistant Secretary at HUD. Her resume touts her work as a poll watcher for the Trump campaign on Election Day in 2016, as well as her work at Trump campaign events.

Suzanne Tufts, Assistant Secretary for Administration.
HUD Assistant Secretary for Administration Suzanne Israel TuftsU.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development

News of Tufts’ new role broke on Tuesday and alarmed a group of inspectors general who were meeting on Wednesday at an awards ceremony in downtown Washington. One official who attended the event said it was “astonishing” to move to replace an inspector general with a political appointee who lacked government oversight experience.

Some 48 hours after the story broke, the Interior Department responded to a flurry of inquiries.

Swift, the Interior spokeswoman, wrote in an email to reporters that Tufts was sent to Interior by the White House “as a potential candidate for a position in the Inspector General’s office,” but “not offered a job.”

Swift went on to throw Carson and his staff under the bus, saying, “HUD sent out an email that had false information in it.”

The HUD press office, which confirmed the original Carson email, has not responded to requests for comment.

Image: Ryan Zinke
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke announces a ban on mining claims north of Yellowstone National Park on Oct. 8, 2018.Matthew Brown / AP file

But the backtrack has not served to tamp down questions from Capitol Hill.

“If the Interior Department’s explanation is that Secretary Carson doesn’t know what his own staff are doing, they should explain whether Ms. Tufts is needed at HUD or not,” said Rep. Raul Grijalva, ranking member of the Natural Resources Committee. “What is her job there? Either way, nobody is buying this explanation and we’re not going to stop pressing for answers.”

Amid the confusion, Kendall has not received any notification of leadership changes and is continuing her investigations of Zinke.

Meanwhile, Suzanne Tufts is still listed on the online HUD directory. A call to her office today went straight to an outgoing voicemail message from Suzanne Tufts.

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