WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump on Tuesday delivered a full-throated defense of Saudi Arabia and cast doubt on a U.S. intelligence assessment that the kingdom’s crown prince knew about the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.
“It could very well be that the crown prince had knowledge of this tragic event – maybe he did and maybe he didn’t!” Trump said in an unusual, eight-paragraph statement laced with exclamation points that opened by declaring, “The world is a very dangerous place!”
Trump’s statement seemed aimed at ending the debate over how his administration has handled Khashoggi’s killing – and at pre-empting lawmakers in Congress from passing any legislation that would mete out tougher punishment for Saudi Arabia.
“The United States intends to remain a steadfast partner of Saudi Arabia to ensure the interests of our country, Israel and all other partners in the region,” Trump said.
As he left Tuesday afternoon for Florida, Trump said abandoning Saudi Arabia “would be a terrible mistake” and touted the regime’s promise to purchase billions of dollars in U.S.-made weapons.
“We’re not going to give up hundreds of billions of dollars,” he said. Experts, such as Jonathan Caverley with the Naval War College, said Trump exaggerated possible arms sales deals to the regime.
Critics said Trump’s statement lets the Saudi government off the hook for the brutal killing of an American resident and sends an ominous signal to other dictatorships around the world that they have carte blanche to commit human rights abuses. They slammed the president for questioning the CIA’s reported conclusion that Salman ordered Khashoggi’s murder.
“President Trump’s habit of siding with murderous foreign dictators over American intelligence professionals is a stain on our democracy that undermines the American ideal,” said Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., a member of the Foreign Relations Committee. “Congress must now stand up with bipartisan resolve to condemn the brutal slaying of Jamal Khashoggi and pass legislation to respond to this and other Saudi crimes.”
The chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Bob Corker, R-Tenn., said Trump’s statement sounded like it was written by “a public relations firm for the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia.”
Corker and New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez, the top Democrat on the committee, responded by forcing the administration to determine whether the crown prince was responsible for Khashoggi’s murder. The senators used a provision in the Magnitsky Act to trigger that assessment.
Trump hinted at the CIA’s assessment of Salman’s role in Khashoggi’s murder, but he highlighted the royal family’s denials and its portrayal of Khashoggi as a dangerous Islamist – a characterization the journalist’s family flatly denied.
“Representatives of Saudi Arabia say that Jamal Khashoggi was an ‘enemy of the state’ and a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, but my decision is in no way based on that,” Trump said. “King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman vigorously deny any knowledge of the planning or execution of the murder of Mr. Khashoggi.”
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo defended Trump’s decision and said it was in America’s national security interests. Pompeo noted that the United States imposed sanctions last week on 17 Saudi individuals in connection with Khashoggi’s killing, and he said the country needs Saudi Arabia’s support in its campaign to isolate Iran.
“It’s a mean, nasty world out there,” Pompeo said when asked about the crown prince, who has come under fire for rounding up dissidents inside the kingdom and conducting a bloody war in Yemen. “It is the president’s obligation to ensure that we adopt policies that further America’s national security.”
The Senate could vote as early as next week on legislation that would force the Trump administration to withdraw all U.S. military support for the Saudi-led bombing campaign in Yemen. It’s not clear whether such a measure could pass, but lawmakers are considering a range of other proposals in response to Khashoggi’s killing.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said Congress should stop U.S. arms sales and other foreign aid to Saudi Arabia and place sanctions on the crown prince.
“Khashoggi, a U.S. resident and columnist for a U.S. newspaper, was killed by agents of the Saudi government in a Saudi Consulate,” she said. “This was a premeditated murder, plain and simple.”
In his statement, Trump accused lawmakers who pushed for tougher action of being politically motivated.
“I understand there are members of Congress who, for political or other reasons, would like to go in a different direction,” Trump said, adding that he would consider “whatever ideas are presented to me” but only if they protect U.S. security. “Very simply it is called America First!”
Khashoggi, a critic of the Saudi regime who fled his home country last year to live in the USA, was killed Oct. 2 inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. He had gone into the diplomatic facility to get documents he needed for his upcoming marriage to a Turkish woman.
Turkish officials said they have evidence that Khashoggi was brutally murdered and dismembered inside the consulate by Saudi operatives. Saudi officials repeatedly denied that Crown Prince Salman had any involvement in Khashoggi’s death.
They have offered shifting accounts of Khashoggi’s fate – first claiming he left the consulate unharmed, then eventually conceding he was murdered there. Khashoggi’s remains have not been found.
Turkey’s foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, told American reporters on Tuesday that his government had not yet determined who ordered Khashoggi’s killing.
Once a determination has been made, “Turkey will not hide it … We will tell,” said Cavusoglu, who was in Washington to meet with Pompeo.
Cavusoglu said he spoke with Pompeo about requesting an international investigation but Trump’s secretary of state suggested waiting until both Turkey and Saudi Arabia had completed their separate probes.
Cavusoglu said he was not bothered by Trump’s decision not to listen to an audio recording of Khashoggi’s murder – which the Turkish government shared with U.S. officials.
“It is very disgusting,” he said of the tape, which he confirmed he had heard. He said one of the Saudi operatives, a forensic expert, appeared to be “enjoying cutting people in pieces.”
Contributing: David Jackson
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