Donald Trump has doubled down on his support for Saudi Arabia, saying he intended for the the US to remain a “steadfast partner”, even though “it could very well be” Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman knew about the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
In his most significant decision yet in regard to claims the powerful young prince was behind the journalist’s murder, Mr Trump said the US would not be imposing sanctions on Saudi Arabia or changing its business or strategic relationships.
He said the decision was at least partly taken because of Saudi’s historic opposition to Iran, and repeated Israel’s claim that Iran was “the world’s leading sponsor of terror”.
“I’m not going to tell a country....that has helped me keep oil prices down...I’m not going to destroy our economy by being foolish with Saudi Arabia,” Mr Trump told reporters, as he left the White House to spend the Thanksgiving Day holiday in Florida.
Asked about reports the CIA had concluded the prince was behind October’s killing of the journalist, he said: “They did not make that assessment. They had nothing definitive.”
He added: “We are staying with Saudi Arabia, and by the way, I have no business with Saudi Arabia. I couldn’t care less. This is about America first.”
Earlier, the White House issued a statement that made clear Mr Trump had no intention of seeing to push for sanctions against Saudi Arabia, even if it emerged the prince was involved in a murder conspiracy that earned Saudi widespread global criticism.
“Representatives of Saudi Arabia say that Jamal Khashoggi was an “enemy of the state” and a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, but my decision is in no way based on that – this is an unacceptable and horrible crime. King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman vigorously deny any knowledge of the planning or execution of the murder of Mr Khashoggi,” said the statement, that contained Mr Trump’s characteristic exclamation marks.
“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!”
He added: “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. 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. It is our paramount goal to fully eliminate the threat of terrorism throughout the world!”
In recent days, the president has repeatedly sought to downplay media reports claiming US intelligence had concluded the prince must have been involved in last month’s plan to kill the journalist at the nation’s consulate in Istanbul.
In an interview with Fox News aired on Sunday, he responded to a question as to whether the prince was involved, by saying: “Will anybody really know…All right, will anybody really know?”
Mr Trump said he would wait for a complete report to be handed to him – something that was done on Tuesday. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the president was obliged to follow policies that furthered the US’s interests.
Speaking following a meeting with Turkish foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu in Washington, Mr Pompeo said “the United States will continue to have a relationship with the kingdom of Saudi Arabia”.
Refusing to comment on reports the CIA had concluded the crown prince was behind the killing, he added: “This is a long, historic commitment and one that is absolutely vital to Americans’ national security.”
Last week, the Washington Post reported the CIA had concluded the powerful crown prince ordered the assassination of journalist the 59-year-old journalist, who went missing after entering a consulate in Turkey to prepare for a trip to Saudi Arabia. Turkish investigators believe the journalist – a one-time close ally of the Saudi establishment who had become critical of the prince – was dismembered and his body parts taken out of the Istanbul facility by a 15-strong hit squad.
The newspaper said officials had “high confidence” in their assessment, which was based on multiple sources of intelligence. Those sources included a phone call the prince’s brother Khalid bin Salman, the Saudi ambassador to the United States, had with Mr Khashoggi, it said.
Few will be surprised by Mr Trump’s announcement, even if regional experts will question many of the president’s assertions, including his claim that “Saudi Arabia would gladly withdraw from Yemen if the Iranians would agree to leave”.
Others were struck by the fact that Mr Trump’s statement avoided all mention of Turkey, or any reference to the Nato’s investigation of murder. This will likely not sit well in Ankara, which continues to hold many powerful cards.
Mr Trump likewise repeated Saudi’s claim Mr Khashoggi was a Muslim Brotherhood member, something which both his family and employers have denied, and an assertion there is no evidence to support.
In Tehran, Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif dismissed the president’s statement. “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 tweeted.
Mr Trump repeatedly said he did not want to damage the US’s business relationship with Saudi Arabia, even though the Guardian said a new report suggested as few as 20,000 US jobs were based on the relationship. Mr Trump has often claimed defence sales to Saudi Arabia were worth at least $110bn and would create as many as 600,000 jobs.
He returned to that point in his statement, in which he underscored Washington would not impose sanctions on the nation which awarded him its highest civilian honour when he visited in the spring of 2017. He said: “If we foolishly cancel these contracts, Russia and China would be the enormous beneficiaries.”
Mr Trump said he recognised there would be “members of congress who, for political or other reasons, would like to go in a different direction”.
“I will consider whatever ideas are presented to me, but only if they are consistent with the absolute security and safety of America. After the United States, Saudi Arabia is the largest oil producing nation in the world. They have worked closely with us and have been very responsive to my requests to keeping oil prices at reasonable levels – so important for the world,” he said.
In recent months, the US and the UK have faced increasing criticism over their support of the Saudi-led coalition’s bombing campaign in Yemen, an operation that has led to the deaths of thousands of civilians and a humanitarian disaster that international officials say has few comparisons.
The UN Security Council is currently considering a resolution to call for fresh negotiations to end the three-year conflict, in which Saudi claims it is protecting itself from attacks from Houthi rebels.
David Beasley, executive director of the UN World Food Programme, recently returned from a visit to Yemen. He told journalists: “This is not on the brink of a catastrophe. This is a catastrophe.”
On Capitol Hill, Democrats were quick to attack Mr Trump’s move. Congresssman Adam Schiff, the senior Democrat on the House of Representatives’ intelligence panel, called for an end of US support to Saudi Arabia and said it was “inconceivable” the crown prince “was either unknowing or uninvolved“ in the murder of Mr Khashoggi.
Senator Dianne Feinstein said she would withhold support for Saudi Arabia and urged the US to impose sanctions.