Luring a journalist to his death, murdering him, cutting him up into pieces, and then lying to the world about his killing—that won’t be enough to stop the U.S. from continuing to do business with Saudi Arabia and its leaders, President Donald Trump told the world Tuesday.
Instead, he indicated that he will let Saudi Arabia off the hook for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, pledging continued support for the kingdom and its de facto leader despite overwhelming evidence that top Saudi officials were involved in the killing.
In a lengthy statement that reads like he dictated it, Trump cast doubt on his own intelligence agency’s reported conclusion that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered the murder, and instead seemed to exculpate the kingdom by backing up its official denials.
“King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman vigorously deny any knowledge of the planning or execution of the murder of Mr. Khashoggi,” Trump said. “Our intelligence agencies continue to assess all information, but it could very well be that the Crown Prince had knowledge of this tragic event—maybe he did and maybe he didn’t!”
Trump’s statement, which included his token phrase “America First!” at the top, was rife with exclamation points and his Twitter mannerisms. The tone echoes the president’s previous statements in which he appeared willing to accept a foreign leader’s claims that contradict his intelligence agencies’ assessments.
Trump all but said he will not be taking further executive actions to punish the Saudi government, beyond the sanctions announced last week targeting 17 Saudi nationals believed to have been involved in the murder. The president appears intent to salvage the U.S.-Saudi relationship in order to preserve lucrative weapons sales in addition to the ongoing efforts to combat malign Iranian influence in the Middle East.
Since October, Trump has remained relatively silent on the details surrounding Khashoggi’s murder. He has repeatedly dodged questions about whether the White House would punish Saudi Arabia further, telling reporters he wanted to wait to view the final conclusions of the various investigations before making a determination.
In a Fox News interview over the weekend, Trump cast doubt on whether he’ll ever be able to find out whether the crown prince had lied to him about who ordered the killing of Khashoggi, who was a legal U.S. resident and a Washington Post columnist. Trump also said he wasn’t interested in hearing the audio that allegedly depicts the killing, which took place inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2.
Despite widespread international condemnation of Khashoggi’s murder and mounting pressure from Democrats and Republicans in Washington to change course, Tuesday’s statement leaves little doubt that the administration is willing to work with Saudi Arabia no matter what happened in Istanbul—the brutal murder and purported dismemberment of a journalist.
“The statement seems to me to be a wholehearted embrace of the relationship with Saudi Arabia,” said Hussein Ibish, senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington. “This is a sort of tripling down on the partnership on every register. Not just the structural relationship, but the transactional relationship as well, like cooperation on Iran.”
Trump said the U.S. “may never know all of the facts surrounding” Khashoggi’s brutal murder, and argued that it was more important to maintain the U.S.-Saudi relationship in the name of combating terrorism in the region.
“In any case, our relationship is with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia,” he said. “They have been a great ally in our very important fight against Iran. 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’s words echoed the spin from Saudi officials who have for weeks behind the scenes worked to make amends with American politicians and lobbyists in an attempt to boost the kingdom’s image in the wake of Khashoggi’s killing. Diplomat Turki al-Faisal earlier this month spoke at a cocktail party in New York to an invite-only crowd and vowed that business between Riyadh and Washington would continue as usual.
The statement underscored the Trump administration’s ongoing efforts to work closely with Saudi Arabia to thwart Iran’s aggression in the Middle East. Trump’s statement focused on lucrative defense contracts Saudi Arabia has inked with American companies including Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and Raytheon.
“If we foolishly cancel these contracts, Russia and China would be the enormous beneficiaries—and very happy to acquire all of this newfound business,” Trump said. “It would be a wonderful gift to them directly from the United States!”
Trump’s statement is likely to spark a contentious response from lawmakers, who could soon get a classified briefing on the matter. Senate leadership, in addition to Senate Foreign Relations Committee staff, have requested an all-senators briefing from CIA Director Gina Haspel and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, a source with direct knowledge of the matter told The Daily Beast. That briefing will likely occur next week when Congress returns to Washington after the Thanksgiving break.
“I understand there are members of Congress who, for political or other reasons, would like to go in a different direction—and they are free to do so,” Trump said. “I will consider whatever ideas are presented to me, but only if they are consistent with the absolute security and safety of America.”
Senators have already threatened legislative action. Sens. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) and Todd Young (R-IN) introduced a bill last week that would suspend future U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia and slap mandatory sanctions on those found to be responsible for Khashoggi’s murder. It would also require the Trump administration to write a report on human rights in Saudi Arabia.
“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-NH), a member of the foreign relations committee. “Fortunately, the president is not the sole protector of that ideal. 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.”
Khashoggi disappeared October 2 after visiting the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. For weeks it was unclear what exactly had happened to the journalist. The Turkish government claimed the Saudi government was responsible for his disappearance, and it leaked evidence to state media in waves, eventually claiming that Khashoggi had been killed at the hands of operatives who flew in from Riyadh.
The Saudi government shot back, claiming publicly and in text messages to journalists that it had nothing to do with Khashoggi’s disappearance. But as evidence mounted against the kingdom, its leaders were eventually forced to admit that its top officials orchestrated and carried out the killing. The Saudi and Turkish governments launched separate investigations, and last week the top prosecutor in Saudi Arabia charged 11 people in connection with the murder, five of whom could face the death penalty.