Lindsey Graham channels John McCain as senators respond to the outcry over missing Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi: 'You have to embrace your values'

Key Points
  • Sen. Lindsey Graham is relying on the wisdom of his longtime friend: late Arizona Sen. John McCain.
  • "The one thing I've learned from John McCain above all else is that, in moments like this, you have to embrace your values," Graham says. "No more transactional interactions."
  • The South Carolina Republican, a close confidant of President Donald Trump, also says he is disappointed over his exchange yesterday afternoon with the Saudi Arabian ambassador to the U.S.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.
Tom Williams | CQ Roll Call | Getty Images

As lawmakers respond to Saudi Arabia over the disappearance and suspected murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, Sen. Lindsey Graham is channeling his longtime friend, the late Arizona Sen. John McCain.

"This is about universal values. This is about defining who we are and what we will accept as a nation," Graham told reporters at the Capitol on Thursday.

"The one thing I've learned from John McCain above all else is that, in moments like this, you have to embrace your values," said Graham, R-S.C. "No more transactional interactions."

Graham, who is a close confidant of President Donald Trump, also said he was disappointed about his exchange yesterday afternoon with the Saudi Arabian ambassador to the U.S.

"It was not a very helpful phone call," he said, without offering more details.

The Trump administration has yet to appoint a U.S. envoy to the Saudi kingdom, instead positioning White House senior advisor and Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner in a leading role for U.S.-Middle East relations.

A senior Turkish official told The New York Times that Khashoggi was murdered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey. But Saudi Arabia insists that Khashoggi left the consulate shortly after he arrived.

The Washington Post reported Wednesday that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman had ordered for Khashoggi, who was living in self-imposed exile in Virginia, to be coaxed back into the kingdom and detained.

Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist who had been a vocal critic of the kingdom's royal family, entered the consulate in Turkey on Oct. 2 and has not been seen outside it since, the Post reported.

Graham, the chair of the subcommittee on appropriations handling U.S. foreign assistance, was one of several senators to submit a letter to Trump on Wednesday evening that requires the administration to investigate Khashoggi's disappearance.

Under the Global Magnitsky Act, signed by President Barack Obama in 2012, the letter triggered a 120-day countdown clock for Trump to decide whether to impose sanctions on Saudi Arabia.

The letter was co-authored by Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tenn., as well as the committee's ranking Democrat, Bob Menendez of New Jersey, and Vermont Democrat Sen. Patrick Leahy. Eighteen other senators of both political parties co-signed the letter to Trump.

At the White House on Thursday, however, Trump appeared to push back on the possibility of stifling investment opportunities between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia. Trump told reporters that there are other ways of handling the situation with Khashoggi, though it was not immediately clear what those alternatives could be.

Graham suggested Thursday that the Magnitsky investigation was the "first step" and could potentially be followed by "standalone legislation."

There is "a lot of interest in sending a strong signal," Graham added.

Neither the White House nor a spokesman for Graham immediately responded to CNBC's requests for comment.

Anger in the Senate

Graham and McCain had been close friends in the Senate for years.

McCain died in August at age 81, more than a year after announcing he had been diagnosed with a form of brain cancer.

Graham, who was Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh's most passionate defender during a politically fraught confirmation process, has already used stronger language than many of his colleagues on Khashoggi's disappearance.

On Wednesday, Graham said "there would be hell to pay" if it turns out Khashoggi was murdered by a Saudi hit team in the Istanbul consulate, as Turkish officials have claimed. "If they're this brazen it shows contempt. Contempt for everything we stand for, contempt for the relationship," Graham said.

Other senators denounced the possible government-ordained murder of a journalist in a foreign country. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said Saudi Arabia will have made a "monumental mistake" if they did kill Khashoggi.

Leahy dismissed concerns about angering religious extremist groups if the U.S. responded too harshly.

"Murder is murder," he said, "and I don't care who they get upset with doing that."

On Fox News, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., referenced a senior Turkish official's claim to the Times that Khashoggi had been not only murdered but dismembered with a bone saw.

"I'm not saying this is what happened, but we're gonna learn it soon enough: The Saudi government ordered a guy to be abducted, they killed him, they chopped him up, they sent a bunch of people to kill him and chop him up, then they left," Rubio said.

"If that's what happened, I'm telling you what's gonna happen here on Capitol Hill is a complete revolt against our policies with Saudi Arabia," Rubio added.