‘End times:’ Rand Paul, Lindsey Graham find common ground on Saudi Arabia

Lindsey Graham laughingly says his sudden embrace of of Rand Paul is a sign of what the Bible calls “end times.” Rand Paul jokes that their mind meld first needed couples’ counseling.

Long at odds when it comes to foreign policy, the South Carolina and Kentucky Republicans have discovered rare common ground: Fury over the role of Saudi Arabia’s crown prince in the death of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and frustration with the Trump administration’s support for the kingdom.

The White House allies represent the hawkish and non-interventionist poles of the Republican Party. Just this summer Paul said Graham was “a danger” for leaving the door open to potential use of military force against North Korea. Graham shot back, “There is no threat to America that Senator Paul will not retreat from.”

But as a Republican-led Senate generally reluctant to challenge President Donald Trump prepares for a spirited debate over the next few days over how to deal with Saudi Arabia, Graham and Paul vividly illustrate the chamber’s extraordinary discontent with Trump’s decision to side with the kingdom.

A Senate vote could come as soon as this week to condemn the Saudi government for a variety of alleged malfeasance, from its involvement in Yemen to its role in Khashoggi’s death.

“It’s a sign that this president’s foreign policy has gone badly askew when Rand Paul and Lindsey Graham are generally in agreement,” said Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Connecticut, who serves with Paul on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and has been meeting with Graham to discuss legislative strategies for punishing Saudi Arabia.

Paul and Graham’s partnership could help set the tone as the Senate looks to upbraid the administration. Lawmakers could vote on at least one of three proposals to register congressional displeasure with the Saudi government.

It’s expected that one proposal will be a Graham-sponsored nonbinding resolution expressing a sense of the Senate that Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman helped orchestrate the journalist’s murder on Oct. 2 inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tennessee, the retiring Foreign Relations Committee chairman who said he believes a U.S. jury would render a guilty verdict on bin Salman “in 30 minutes,” said Graham’s resolution or a version of it is expected to pass overwhelmingly, regardless of whether Graham and Paul throw their weight behind it.

Trump has seemingly disregarded CIA reports of the strong probability that the crown prince was behind Khashoggi’s brutal dismemberment and has warned against disrupting a partnership that has resulted in American jobs from Saudi arm sales.

“Maybe he did and maybe he didn’t,” Trump said in a statement regarding whether bin Salman bore responsibility.

It’s possible senators end up sending a measure to the president’s desk that would block U.S. arm sales to Saudi Arabia in retaliation against the kingdom’s actions. There could also be a vote on legislation to end U.S. military support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen, though that bill is unlikely to pass.

While Graham and Paul’s support might not change Trump’s mind on Saudi Arabia, together they could send a powerful message about just how far the president’s friends are willing to go to get what they want on this particular issue — and that they’re working in tandem to do so.

This is not the first time the two men have agreed on controversial policies. Graham told McClatchy this past week he and Paul had both backed banning the U.S. military’s use of torture. And each is lobbying Republican leadership to pass legislation aimed at improving the federal prison system.

Paul pointed out that he and Graham also share a history of breaking from the president.

“He’s been unafraid to stake his position despite what the president’s position is and so am I,” Paul said of Graham. “Usually it’s been on the opposite side, but this is a good thing we’re together.”

Graham, who called their cooperation on Saudi Arabia a “new world,” joked that it was spelled out “in the Bible, it’s the sign of the end times.”

“We’re finding common purpose and fighting back against behavior that’s so out of the norm that it can’t be ignored,” Graham said.

Paul, too, said the extraordinary nature of Khashoggi’s murder and Saudi Arabia’s response had brought the two together: “It’s an unusual set of circumstances to have someone butchered in a consulate. I think that’s why you’re seeing people come together because it’s so dramatic, it’s so dramatically wrong what Saudi Arabia’s doing.”

After Paul complained about being excluded from a CIA briefing on the Khashoggi murder, Graham, who was invited to attend, stood up for his colleague. Later, Graham told McClatchy he would personally give Paul some details from that meeting, an unusual overture of collegiality between the two.

Kentucky senator Rand Paul expressed his frustration about being excluded from a closed-door CIA briefing on the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the involvement of Mohammad bin Salman, the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia.

They still have differences on how to deal with the Yemen issue. Graham has been opposed to invoking the War Powers act to end U.S. support for the Saudi war in Yemen, and Paul supports taking such an action. Graham also voted with the majority last month to stop Paul’s effort to prevent a $300 million sale of rocket launchers to Bahrain, a member of a Saudi-led coalition waging war in Yemen.

“I don’t think it’s one of us being right or wrong, it’s that we both have the same sort of strong belief that we can’t let the Saudis do this,” Paul said. “It’s a meeting of the minds and I think it’s good.”

It’s not always been so: Graham and Paul feuded on the national stage when they both ran for president in 2016, losing the nomination to Trump.

Before that, they clashed on Capitol Hill. In 2013, Graham ridiculed Paul for a 13-hour filibuster opposing President Barack Obama’s drone program. In 2015, C-SPAN cameras captured Graham rolling his eyes as Paul spoke on the Senate floor against an expiring section of the 2001 Patriot Act that authorized new surveillance authorities on the American public.

In 2017, Paul called Graham a “warmonger” and called him out on Twitter for proposing that Congress exceed budget caps to increase defense spending. Graham reminded the social media universe that Paul opposed the GOP’s last chance to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act.

As recently as this summer, Paul said Graham was “a danger” for leaving the door open to potential use of military force against North Korea. Graham shot back, “there is no threat to America that Senator Paul will not retreat from.”

Now, on Saudi Arabia, Graham and Paul might end up being strongest not just by agreeing with each other on principle but by actually working together.

While Graham acknowledged they might not have time to negotiate and pass legislation before the end of the year that would ban arm sales to the Saudis or impose other sanctions, he was hopeful he and Paul could be collaborators in the future.

“Get Rand Paul, grow the coalition,” Graham said.

Lesley Clark works out of the McClatchy Washington bureau, covering all things Kentucky for McClatchy’s Lexington Herald-Leader. A former reporter for McClatchy’s Miami Herald, she also spent several years covering the White House.
Emma Dumain works out of the McClatchy Washington bureau, where her reporting on South Carolina politics appears in The State, The Herald, The Sun News, The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette. She was previously the Washington correspondent for the Charleston, South Carolina Post and Courier. Dumain also covered Congress for Roll Call and Congressional Quarterly.