In an extraordinary written statement issued on Tuesday, President Trump signaled that his administration will not penalize Saudi Arabia over its alleged involvement in the murder and dismemberment of the U.S.-based columnist Jamal Khashoggi, citing the value of U.S. arms sales to Riyadh and the Kingdom’s role in Trump’s strategy to constrain Iran.
In his 3,800-word statement, Trump reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to “standing with Saudi Arabia” even though “it could very well be that the Crown Prince had knowledge of” Khashoggi’s murder.
“Maybe he did and maybe he didn’t!” Trump wrote, using one of the statement’s eight exclamation marks. “That being said, we may never know all of the facts surrounding the murder of Mr. Jamal Khashoggi.
“In any case, our relationship is with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.”
Trump said that although U.S. intelligence agencies are continuing to assess the early-October murder, which took place in the Saudi embassy in Istanbul, Turkey, “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.”
The president characterized the decision as part of his “America First!” strategy.
Saudi Arabia has offered shifting, contradictory explanations for what happened inside the embassy in Istanbul. But press accounts both in the U.S. and in Turkey have reflected a growing international consensus that Saudi Arabia’s young crown prince, 33-year-old Mohammed bin Salman, was involved in the murder at some level. The Washington Post reported this week that the CIA has concluded Prince Mohammed, or MBS, as is he is known in the West, directly ordered the killing; outside experts say it strains credulity to think he would not have been aware of the assassination.
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Saudi Arabia strongly denies the crown prince’s involvement, the president noted in his statement. He told Fox News’ Chris Wallace this weekend that he had not listened to tapes purported to contain audio of the grisly murder.
The U.S. has taken steps to punish some of those believed to have been involved in the murder, sanctioning 17 individuals believed to have participated, but the questions of whether and how to censure MBS put the Trump administration in an uncomfortable bind. Led by the president’s son-in-law and senior White House advisor Jared Kushner, it has long embraced MBS as a key partner in its Middle East strategy. And according to the Post, CIA analysts believe the Saudi prince is in no danger of losing his status as heir to the throne.
In particular, senior officials in the administration see Saudi Arabia as a key ally in their efforts to constrain Iran — a foreign-policy priority in the region.
“We have no better partner” than Saudi Arabia in containing Iran, Special Envoy to Syria, Ambassador Jim Jeffrey said during the Defense One summit last week. “We couldn’t be doing what we’re doing in the region without them.”
Trump’s statement comes as the administration escalates its efforts to hem in Tehran. The U.S. earlier this month re-imposed sanctions on the Iranian regime that had been lifted under the 2015 nuclear deal struck by President Obama; also on Tuesday, the U.S. Treasury Department levied fresh sanctions on Iran, accusing it of shipping oil to Syria in defiance of existing sanctions.
Trump in his statement noted that Saudi Arabia considered Khashoggi “an enemy of the state” and a member of the Islamist organization the Muslim Brotherhood — although he insisted that “my decision was in no way based on that.”
Trump also repeated the false statement that his administration had negotiated the sale of arms worth $110 billion before and during his 2017 trip to Riyadh. In fact, a number of the deals were cleared by the Obama administration. Moreover, much of that total remains prospective; actual arms exports to Saudi Arabia under Trump come to $14.5 billion.
He has also claimed at different times that between 450,000 and 1 million American jobs were at risk if the deals were canceled.
“Saudi arms sales support at most tens of thousands of jobs in the United States, not hundreds of thousands or ‘a million,’ as President Trump has claimed,” states a new Center for International Policy report written by William Hartung. “Actual, paid-for deliveries of U.S.-produced arms for Saudi Arabia have averaged about $2.5 billion per year over the past decade, enough to support at most 20,000 to 40,000 jobs, some of which are located overseas.”
Trump’s statement drew swift condemnation from critics on Capitol Hill, who saw it as as a presidential carte blanche to MBS — one that condones the murder of a journalist living on U.S. soil, undermines the U.S. commitment to human rights, and takes the word of Riyadh over the conclusions of the U.S. intelligence community.
“The President’s failure to hold Saudi Arabia responsible in any meaningful way for the death of Jamal Khashoggi is just one more example of this White House’s retreat from American leadership on issues like human rights and protecting the free press,” Senate Intelligence Vice Chairman Mark Warner, D-Va., said in a statement. “It’s hard to imagine that this type of action would have taken place under a Reagan, Bush, Clinton or Obama Administration without facing serious repercussions.”
Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle have expressed mounting frustrating with Riyadh and its impetuous young ruler, not only over the murder of Khashoggi but also Saudi Arabia’s involvement in the punishing war in Yemen, MBS’s signature foreign-policy initiative. Some lawmakers have called for the United States to cut off all arms sales and military support to Riyadh. (U.S. officials recently announced that the American military will no longer assist in aerial refueling in Yemen — according to the Saudi Embassy, because the kingdom is now able to handle such maneuvers by itself).
The Kingdom has long been an irritant on Capitol Hill, often across partisan lines. In 2016, lawmakers overrode President Barack Obama’s veto of a bill giving 9/11 victims the ability to sue the country; the Senate last year took up legislation to block some of the arms deals with Riyadh in a resolution that was defeated by just a handful of votes.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a fierce ally of the president, said in a statement “it is not in our national security interests to look the other way” on the killing.
“I firmly believe there will be strong bipartisan support for serious sanctions against Saudi Arabia, including appropriate members of the royal family, for this barbaric act which defied all civilized norms. While Saudi Arabia is a strategic ally, the behavior of the Crown Prince – in multiple ways – has shown disrespect for the relationship and made him, in my view, beyond toxic,” the statement read.
But it remains unclear whether the Republican-controlled Senate will move to force any kind of retributive action on Saudi Arabia over the will of the administration. Several of the kingdom’s leading critics on the Hill — like Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tenn. — are poised to retire.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo backed up the president’s assertion that the United States will remain a close ally of Saudi Arabia despite the killing, calling the alliance “absolutely vital to America’s security.”
“It’s a mean, nasty world out there,” he said.
Marcus Weisgerber contributed to this report.
This article has been updated with a statement from Sen. Lindsey Graham R-S.C.