COLUMBIA, S.C. — New Jersey Democratic Sen. Cory Booker offered sharp criticism of the White House’s handling of the disappearance of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi during a campaign event at Allen University on Thursday. He also tied the issue to larger concerns about Saudi Arabia and suggested America should reevaluate its close ties to the Gulf kingdom.
Booker was asked about Khashoggi’s case when he took questions from audience members following the event. He immediately linked the issue to Saudi Arabia’s military strikes in Yemen, which have led to widespread civilian deaths and food shortages in that country.
“I just want you to know I think it is right that there’s such a response and frustration about that,” Booker said of the reaction to Khashoggi’s disappearance. “But you have to understand, I have been critical of the Saudis for a long time, say, for example, what’s going on in Yemen right now, which is a humanitarian disaster.”
Booker suggested that people should be outraged about what happened to Khashoggi and the situation in Yemen, which has garnered far less attention.
“This is one man that died gruesomely, which is horrific, and we should condemn it and what’s happening right now to thousands — tens of thousands of people, children in Yemen right now, massive famine, humanitarian disaster,” Booker said.
Booker noted he has previously criticized U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia and American military involvement in Yemen, which has included providing targeting information for Saudi strikes. He also criticized President Trump for showing a lack of moral leadership.
“We need to reexamine that entire relationship,” Booker said of Saudi Arabia. “We need to be a nation that leads the moral light of the world, not retreats from our morals,” he said, also criticizing the Trump administration for stepping back from international leadership in areas such as climate change.
In the Senate, Booker has voted against U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia during both the Trump and Obama administrations. He has also backed efforts to limit U.S. support for Saudi military operations in Yemen and publicly pushed the Trump administration to press Saudi Arabia on human rights issues.
Khashoggi, who was a U.S. permanent resident and contributor to the Washington Post, went missing on Oct. 2 after going into the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, to file paperwork required for his upcoming wedding. In recent years, Khashoggi had become a prominent critic of the Saudi monarchy.
The Turkish government, which has a tense relationship with Saudi Arabia, has said that Khashoggi was killed by a Saudi team. Saudi Arabia initially denied any role in Khashoggi’s death, but may now be preparing to admit that the dissident writer died in the consulate during a botched interrogation.
So far, the White House response to the situation has largely consisted of a push to get Saudi Arabia to conduct an investigation into the matter with Turkish participation. Critics have argued that the White House response is inadequate and questioned the Trump administration’s close relationship with Saudi Arabia, particularly the country’s new crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, who has repeatedly engaged in repressive behavior despite marketing himself as a reformer.
Booker echoed this view in his appearance on Thursday and suggested he was skeptical of Saudi efforts to investigate the situation.
“I’m worried that this has been skewed from the start. I’m worried about efforts to cover this up and I’m worried about our administration willing to just go along and get along because of a lot of the financial interests that we might have,” Booker said.
“America’s morals are not for sale. America’s values are not for sale and we need to stand up for who we are as a country,” Booker also said. “I hope that whoever ever holds that presidential office stands as a moral leader nationally and globally and not somebody that would compromise for arms sales.”
Booker has been the subject of growing speculation that he might mount a White House bid in 2020, which has only increased with groundwork the senator has begun and recent trips he has made to influential primary states like South Carolina. Booker addressed the presidential buzz at the event on Thursday when an audience member asked him about his future plans. Booker, whose event was aimed at turning out voters for the midterms, said he’s focused on that election and will consider the future afterward. He subsequently told reporters that he’ll “think about what the next steps are for me” in the days following the Nov. 6 midterm races.
“I will be glad to have that conversation in 20 days. Let’s focus on one election at a time. Let’s focus on this one before us,” Booker said. “Somebody asked me the other day, ‘Are you running for president?’ I said, ‘Sir, I’m running from the president.’”