President Donald Trump signaled Tuesday that he will not take strong action against or its Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for the death and dismemberment of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
The White House has been struggling to square a widespread sense that the crown prince directed the killing with its desire for Saudi support for its foreign policy priorities and a need to manage close relationships between bin Salman, the Trump administration and members of Trump’s family.
In an exclamation-mark laden statement subtitled “America First!” Trump said that “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!”
Speaking to the press later in the day, Trump cited the Kingdom’s influence over oil prices and said, “if we abandon Saudi it would be a terrible mistake.” He also said he was “not going to destroy the economy of our country” over Khashoggi by giving up arms deals to Saudi Arabia.
“It’s a very simple equation for me. I’m about make America great again and I’m about America first,” Trump said.
In his statement, the President said, “we may never know all of the facts surrounding the murder of Mr. Jamal Khashoggi,” Trump continued in his statement. “In any case, our relationship is with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. They have been a great ally in our very important fight against Iran.”
Less than an hour after releasing the statement, Trump appeared in the White House Rose Garden to pardon two turkeys for Thanksgiving. He did not mention the journalist’s murder.
The President’s statement sets up a clash with lawmakers from both parties who have called for harsh measures against Saudi Arabia and have expressed deep reservations about US support for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen. It once again pits Trump against his intelligence agencies and bolsters a regime that has admitted to killing a vocal critic and member of the press.
Washington Post response
“President Trump’s response to the brutal murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi is a betrayal of long-established American values of respect for human rights and the expectation of trust and honesty in our strategic relationships,” Washington Post publisher and CEO Fred Ryan said in a statement.
“He is placing personal relationships and commercial interests above American interests in his desire to continue to do business as usual with the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia,” Ryan continued.
“The Central Intelligence Agency has thoroughly investigated the murder of this innocent journalist and concluded with high confidence that it was directed by the Crown Prince,” Ryan said. “If there is reason to doubt the findings of the CIA, President Trump should immediately make that evidence public.”
Trump, who broadly justified his response on the grounds that the US needs the Kingdom to counter Iran, was expected to receive a CIA assessment on Khashoggi’s murder on Tuesday.
A senior administration official told CNN that the report, delivered in physical form, is an assessment of all the intelligence gathered so far, but will not present a final conclusion. That’s in keeping with intelligence community practice: agencies assign a confidence level to their findings because intelligence isn’t conclusive.
And though sources tell CNN that the CIA has assessed with high confidence that the prince, known by his initials MBS, directed Khashoggi’s murder, which was conducted by members of the prince’s inner circle, the fact that they don’t make a final conclusion gives the White House an out.
Indeed, Trump told reporters as he left for Thanksgiving that the CIA “didn’t make a determination … they have nothing definitive and the fact is maybe he did, maybe he didn’t.”
The Trump administration is relying on Saudi Arabia to help it achieve its goals in the Middle East on an Israeli-Palestinian deal, fighting extremism, rebuilding Syria and countering Iran, which the President mentioned in the second sentence of his statement to bolster the claim in his first sentence that “The world is a very dangerous place!”
Saudi Arabia’s ability to sell more oil is especially crucial to the US campaign against Iran, as the Kingdom helps ensure that US sanctions against Iranian oil, which take an estimated 1 million barrels a day off the market, don’t roil international energy markets.
Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif tweeted that “Mr. Trump bizarrely devotes the FIRST paragraph of his shameful statement on Saudi atrocities to accuse IRAN of every sort of malfeasance he can think of.”
He then ridiculed Trump’s recent claim about fires that have devastated California, where Zarif attended prep school and university. “Perhaps we’re also responsible for the California fires, because we didn’t help rake the forests — just like the Finns do?”
Khashoggi’s killing has drawn attention to Trump’s business ties to Saudi Arabia and the relationship between the crown prince and Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner, who has assiduously courted the crown prince and arranged Trump’s first overseas trip to the kingdom.
Daniel Drezner, an international politics professor at The Fletcher School at Tufts University, told CNN that it’s hard to understand why Trump isn’t leaning harder on Saudi Arabia, saying that the US can exert more leverage than it is choosing to. “The fact that they’re so reticent to do it shows a real misunderstanding of the” balance of power, he said.
Trump “seems remarkably wimpish” with respect to Saudi Arabia, Drezner said, adding that Trump might feel a kinship to the Saudi royal family. “There’s otherwise no real explanation for why he’s not applying more pressure,” Drezner said.
Some lawmakers are proposing investigations into the Trump family’s financial ties to the Kingdom. Trump, who has boasted of selling $40 million and $50 million apartments to Saudis and has seen Saudi money pour into his hotels since he was elected, claimed Tuesday that he has no financial interests with the Kingdom.
“I have no business with Saudi Arabia, couldn’t care less,” Trump said Tuesday.
As outrage has grown on Capitol Hill and overseas, the President, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and national security adviser John Bolton have stressed the need for patience and the importance of US ties with the Kingdom.
Pompeo briefed reporters at the State Department, mentioning Khashoggi’s “case” as an aside in the last of five items he ran through. He defended the decision not to take strong action against Saudi Arabia for the US resident’s death saying “there are important American interests to keep the American people safe.”
‘Pretending to do something’
Saudi Arabia announced last week that 11 men had been indicted for the “rogue operation” and that five would face the death penalty. In what appeared to be a coordinated move, the Treasury Department the same day announced sanctions against 17 Saudis over their alleged roles in the killing, a move that Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky said amounted to “pretending to do something” as Saudi Arabia had already sentenced some of the men to death.
Asked if Trump’s statement indicated the US was putting business interests above human rights, Pompeo referred to the Treasury sanctions as “a very strong response.”
Trump, who derided the Saudi explanations as “the worst cover-up ever” in late October, made clear in his Tuesday statement that he views the killing in transactional terms.
Citing promised Saudi investment in the US that could generate jobs and military contracts worth billions, even as he wildly inflated their worth, Trump said that “if we foolishly cancel these contracts, Russia and China would be the enormous beneficiaries and very happy to acquire all of this newfound business.”
He will likely run into headwinds from Capitol Hill, as lawmakers of both parties issued excoriating responses to Trump’s decision.
“I plan to vote against any future arms sales and appropriation to Saudi Arabia,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat said in a statement. “I also believe that the United States should consider sanctions against the crown prince and that the Saudi ambassador to the United States should not be allowed to continue in that role.”
Before the statement, Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker, a Tennessee Republican, said Congress would respond with “additional pressure” on Saudi Arabia if the administration doesn’t name the Saudi crown prince as part of its sanctions determination under the Magnitsky Act, legislation that allows for sanctions on human rights grounds.
“We explicitly told the administration we expect that in making its determination it will include all relevant information, including with respect to the highest-ranking officials in Saudi Arabia,” Corker told CNN. “The administration has indicated that it will issue a report this week, and in anticipation, we are looking at ways to respond and apply additional pressure if the Crown Prince is not named.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican and strong Trump supporter, told NBC on Sunday that “if you know anything about Saudi Arabia, anything about MBS, the fact that he didn’t know about it is impossible for me to believe.”
He predicted that the Kingdom “will have a hard time on the world stage” as a result of the murder. “When it comes to the crown prince, he is irrational, he’s unhinged, and I think he has done a lot of damage to the relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia.”
The prince has led Saudi Arabia into a series of foreign policy misadventures that have rippled through the region. He has aggressively pursued a war in Yemen against Iran-backed Houthi rebels that have led the UN to assess Saudi Arabia might be guilty of possible war crimes there, as millions starve due to a Saudi-led blockade.
Bin Salman has created a diplomatic rift with Qatar, complicating US strategic interests in the region. He briefly detained the Lebanese prime minister inside Saudi Arabia and triggered a rift with Canada after an official sent one tweet about the detention of a Saudi human rights activist.
The President’s statement and the expected CIA report come seven weeks after the father of four entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2 to seek marriage documents. Trump was briefed by CIA Director Gina Haspel, who traveled to Turkey to meet with officials there about their findings and allegedly heard a recording the Turkish government had made of the killing.
Saudi Arabia initially insisted the Virginia resident left its consulate, but after a few weeks in which its story constantly shifted, officials admitted in late October that the murder was premeditated and was conducted by a group of 15 men from various government agencies and some from the prince’s closest circle of advisors.
The Turks have said Khashoggi was set upon, beaten and dismembered soon after he entered the consulate. Saudi officials have said that the team was sent to convince the journalist to return to Saudi Arabia and that he was mistakenly killed with an overdose meant to temporarily subdue him. It is still not clear where Khashoggi’s body is or what happened to it.
While Riyadh has maintained that neither the crown prince nor his father knew of the operation, intelligence officials, lawmakers and analysts familiar with the country have assessed that an operation of this nature and scale could not happen without the direction and awareness of the crown prince, who controls all the country’s security services.
Graham told NBC on Sunday that the team of 15 “don’t get on two airplanes, go to Turkey and chop a guy up in a consulate who is a critic of the crown prince without the crown prince having known about it. And sanctioned it.”