Washington (AFP) - US President Donald Trump said Thursday he was not yet prepared to limit arms sales to Saudi Arabia over journalist Jamal Khashoggi's disappearance, but he faced mounting pressure from concerned American lawmakers.
Saudi Arabia is one of the world's largest arms purchasers, with most of them coming from the United States.
Khashoggi, a contributor to The Washington Post, vanished more than a week ago during a visit to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Turkish government sources say he was murdered there, a claim Riyadh denies.
Trump reiterated he wants answers about what happened to Khashoggi, but said he could not justify sacrificing jobs and income generated by the arms deal.
"That would not be acceptable," Trump said in the Oval Office. "They are spending $110 billion on military equipment and on things that create jobs."
The Saudis will "take that money and spend it in Russia or China or someplace else. I think there are other ways. If it turns out to be as bad as it might be, there are certainly other ways of handling the situation."
Trump again expressed concern about Khashoggi's fate.
"We don't like it," he told reporters. "We don't like it even a little bit."
US senators wrote a letter to Trump on Wednesday demanding an investigation.
Under the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, such a letter compels the White House to report to Congress within 120 days with a determination about whether human rights abuses occurred, and whether sanctions should be applied.
Stern-faced senators including those in Trump's Republican Party signaled that arms sales could be a way to punish Riyadh.
"Saudi Arabia needs to clear this up immediately," Republican Senator Cory Gardner told reporters.
"Obviously there's a way that this could end very badly, and that is if Saudi indeed is responsible for this," he continued. "Arms sales are certainly going to be, I think, a huge concern."
Congress has the power to temporarily block major arms deals, and several senators signaled they would consider doing so.
"I think there is a rising sense" that lawmakers are willing to block the sales if Saudi officials are found to have played a role in Khashoggi's disappearance, said Senate Democrat Bob Menendez.
"We can't let even an ally believe that they have carte blanche to do anything they want," he told reporters.
Republican Senator Rand Paul, a fervent critic of the kingdom, said Trump should "immediately" halt the arms sales.
Paul and others have argued that Saudi Arabia is using US high-tech systems and weapons to commit war atrocities in Yemen, including killing civilians.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Bob Corker said that during the 120-day review period, Trump's administration "will be under immense pressure, if it's determined that Saudi Arabia was involved, to sanction very severely the people who've been involved in this."
Trump, speaking earlier to Fox News, said Khashoggi's situation marked a "terrible precedent. We can't let it happen. And we're being very tough and we have investigators over there."
Khashoggi has criticized Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in his writings.
The Post has reported that Prince Mohammed ordered an operation to "lure" the journalist back home -- an operation that may have gone wrong in Istanbul.
The $110 billion in military sales which Trump referred to was announced last year by the US administration prior to Trump's first foreign trip, which was to Saudi Arabia. Many components of that arms package had actually been set in motion months or even years earlier.