WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump on Tuesday declared his strong support for Saudi Arabia while undermining the CIA’s conclusion that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was responsible for the brutal death of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, issuing a remarkable exclamation-mark packed statement that effectively called for an end to the debate over whether to stand by the kingdom.
Even for a president who routinely equates global affairs with business transactions, Trump’s calculation was startling. In weighing how to respond to what his own intelligence officials have essentially deemed a state-sanctioned murder, the president decided that oil production, weapons sales and geopolitical advantage were more important than holding an ally to account.
The United States “may never know all of the facts surrounding the murder,” Trump said, noting that both King Salman and his son, Mohammed, “vigorously deny any knowledge of the planning or execution of the murder of Mr. Khashoggi,” which Trump called a “crime.”
He offered dubious examples of how the Saudis enhance the U.S. economy, and stressed the importance of staying in the kingdom’s good graces.
At the same time, the president acknowledged that the young crown prince may well have ordered the murder of Khashoggi, a prominent critic of Mohammed’s policies who lived in Virginia and wrote columns for The Washington Post, while seeming to shrug off how much that mattered.
“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 said.
Despite mounting evidence of the prince’s role, some of which the president has seen during intelligence briefings, Trump indicated that U.S. economic and national security interests - especially the billions of dollars in arms purchases he said the Saudis would make - outweighed the need to establish whether Mohammed was involved and, if so, punished.
“They have been a great ally,” he said of the Saudis, and “the United States intends to remain a steadfast partner.”
Later, speaking to reporters before leaving the White House for his resort in Florida, Trump frankly explained his rationale, saying that Saudi Arabia “has helped me keep oil prices down.”
“I’m not going to destroy our economy by being foolish with Saudi Arabia,” he said.
The president’s statement, and further comments by the Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, left little doubt that as far as the administration was concerned, relations with Saudi Arabia would continue as normal and that he planned to put the Khashoggi crisis behind him.
“It’s a mean, nasty world out there. The Middle East in particular,” Pompeo told reporters, echoing comments in Trump’s statement that “the world is a very dangerous place!”
“It is the president’s obligation and indeed the State Department’s duty as well to ensure that we adopt policy that furthers America’s national security. So as the president said today, the United States will continue to have a relationship with the kingdom of Saudi Arabia,” Pompeo said.
Khashoggi was killed Oct. 2, soon after entering the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul to obtain documents he needed to remarry.
Trump’s statement came after he said he would receive a full report on the killing in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul last month, and after The Washington Post reported that the CIA had determined it was effectively impossible that Mohammed wasn’t involved.
It appeared that no report was forthcoming, and it wasn’t clear that the president had received any new information. CIA Director Gina Haspel had already shown the president details of the crown prince’s involvement, officials said. The agency’s assessment of Mohammed’s involvement relied on audio recordings provided by Turkey, intercepted phone calls, as well as other analysis performed by Saudi experts at the CIA, according to people familiar with the agency’s work.
Trump said the CIA was still looking into the issue.
The agency declined to comment.
Lawmakers from both parties reacted with frustration to the president’s remarks and signaled that they would take up the matter after the Thanksgiving holiday.
South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey O. Graham said he is more determined than ever to push legislation that will press the Saudi regime and he urged the U.S. government to focus on the crown prince and his actions.
“When it comes to the Crown Prince it is not wise to look away,” Graham said Tuesday afternoon. “It does not serve our national interest well.” He described the crown prince as “a wrecking ball,” citing actions including initiating an embargo against Qatar as well as having a role in the death of Khashoggi.
Democrats cast the president’s decision as a failure of leadership.
“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,” Sen. Mark Warner, Va., the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said in a statement. “It’s hard to imagine that the Saudis would have taken this action under a Reagan, Bush, Clinton or Obama Administration without facing serious repercussions.”
Washington Post Publisher and CEO Fred Ryan also heavily criticized the president’s statement.
“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,” he said. “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.”
He added: “In this failure of leadership from President Trump, it now falls to Congress to stand up for America’s true values and lasting interests.”
Trump’s defense of Saudi Arabia marks another instance when he has sided with the personal assurances of an autocrat, who has an incentive to deceive him, over the objective analysis of his own intelligence officials.
Trump also took the word of Russian Vladimir Putin that he didn’t meddle in the 2016 elections, despite the unanimous conclusions of the U.S. intelligence community to the contrary. And Trump continues to praise North Korea’s dictator, Kim Jung Un, and declare the threat from its nuclear weapons program neutralized, even though U.S. intelligence is still tracking the development of missiles and nuclear weapons material.
“We ‘may never know’ because we don’t want to know,” Bruce Riedel, a former career CIA officer and longtime Saudi expert, said.
“The administration is defending a country most Americans have little affection for and an individual who most Americans have come to the conclusion is a murderer,” Riedel said.
But relations with Russia and North Korea have nothing to do with jobs and weapons sales. Trump’s decision to side with the Saudis, in the end, came down largely to the money he claimed the kingdom would bring to the U.S. economy.
In the eight-paragraph statement, the president lauded Saudi Arabia’s economic ties with the United States and personally took credit for what he called historic investments.
“After my heavily negotiated trip to Saudi Arabia last year, the Kingdom agreed to spend and invest $450 billion in the United States. This is a record amount of money,” Trump claimed, citing a figure that many experts have said greatly exaggerates the real value of Saudi deals.
Trump had initially resisted making his first visit abroad as president to Riyadh, but he acquiesced after the Saudis promised to commit to weapons purchases.
“It will create hundreds of thousands of jobs, tremendous economic development, and much additional wealth for the United States,” he said, again citing a claim without any evidence and that is at odds with the estimates of experts, who have said that Saudi weapons purchases have a negligible effect on the overall economy.
Trump also called out U.S. defense contractors by name, claiming that Saudi Arabia would spend $110 billion with Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Raytheon, as well as other companies. Trump’s invocation could put the companies in an uncomfortable position of being seen as benefiting from the largesse of a Saudi ruler who is being increasingly isolated on the world stage, and who even members of the president’s own party in Congress said has lost all credibility.
“If we foolishly cancel these contracts, Russia and China would be the enormous beneficiaries - and very happy to acquire all of this newfound business. It would be a wonderful gift to them directly from the United States!” Trump said, repeating his argument that the Saudis would simply buy their weapons elsewhere if the United States refuses to sell to them.
Trump also took up a Saudi claim, fanned by some on the American political right, that Khashoggi was seen as an “enemy of the state” and a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist group opposed by Riyadh. That amounted to an unsubstantiated slur toward Khashoggi, a U.S. resident, who though he had friends within the movement had also once been a loyal supporter and close ally to the Saudi royal family.
Trump insisted that “my decision was in no way based on that,” referring to the claims Khashoggi was a danger to the kingdom. When The Washington Post first reported on Nov. 1 that the crown prince privately described Khashoggi as a dangerous Islamist to senior administration officials, Saudi officials denied making any such claims and portrayed Khashoggi as a friend of the kingdom.
Trump also portrayed Saudi Arabia as a crucial partner in countering Iran’s malign actions. He led his statement by enumerating the places where Iran poses a threat to U.S. interests and regional stability and called out the Islamic republic for its support of terrorist groups that have killed Americans.
Iran “is responsible for a bloody proxy war against Saudi Arabia in Yemen, trying to destabilize Iraq’s fragile attempt at democracy, supporting the terror group Hezbollah in Lebanon, propping up dictator Bashar Assad in Syria (who has killed millions of his own citizens), and much more,” Trump said.
He praised the Saudis for agreeing “to spend billions of dollars in leading the fight against Radical Islamic Terrorism.”
The president often writes with exclamation marks, and several advisers said he dictated much of the statement, which he released shortly before leaving Washington to spend the Thanksgiving holiday at his resort in Florida.
Trump had said over the weekend that a “very complete” report on the Khashoggi case would be forthcoming on Tuesday. But there was no sign of it, leaving open the question of whether Trump had sought to delay acting on the CIA’s findings.
Trump has told advisers for weeks that he was uninterested in punishing the kingdom in any sort of substantive way and has noted that other countries, like China, treat dissidents terribly too.
As international condemnation over Khashoggi’s killing has mounted in recent weeks, the president has grown frustrated and has looked for reasons to believe that the crown prince was not involved, aides said. He has repeatedly talked about keeping oil prices low and arms sales flowing - and the benefit for the United States - while downplaying the killing.
The president also seemed to preempt likely criticism from Congress, where a number of pending bills seek to punish Saudi Arabia.
“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. I will consider whatever ideas are presented to me, but only if they are consistent with the absolute security and safety of America,” Trump said.
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The Washington Post’s John Hudson, Tom Hamburger and Karoun Demirjian contributed to this report.