WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump vowed on Tuesday to remain a “steadfast partner” of Saudi Arabia despite saying that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman may have known about the plan to murder dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi last month.
Defying intense pressure from U.S. lawmakers to impose tougher sanctions on Saudi Arabia, Trump also said he would not cancel military contracts with the kingdom, claiming it would be a “foolish” move that would only benefit Russia and China.
Trump said U.S. intelligence agencies were still studying the evidence around Khashoggi’s murder inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2 and who planned it.
“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 in a statement issued by the White House.
His comments contradicted the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), which believes Khashoggi’s death was ordered directly by the crown prince, who is Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler and is widely known by his initials MbS.
Trump was quickly accused by Democratic lawmakers of undermining his own intelligence agencies and failing to confront Saudi Arabia over a human rights atrocity.
“Human rights is more than just a phrase, it has to mean something. And that means standing up and condemning a brazen murder by a foreign government. Everyone who played a role in this killing must be held accountable,” Senator Dianne Feinstein said.
Democratic and Republican lawmakers have urged Trump to drop his support for MbS over the Khashoggi case, but the president has been reluctant.
Trump said on Tuesday that both Saudi Arabia’s King Salman and MbS “vigorously deny any knowledge of the planning or execution of the murder,” and that the truth may never be known.
He also stressed that Saudi Arabia, a major oil producer, is an important business partner and a “great ally” in the fight against Iranian power in the Middle East.
“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,” Trump said.
Adam Schiff, who is expected to become leader of the House of Representatives’ Intelligence Committee in January, said the United States should immediately end support for Saudi Arabia in the Yemen war, suspend arms sales to the kingdom, and reduce its reliance on Riyadh in the Middle East.
“The President adds to his track record of ignoring his own intelligence agencies, and undermining American values at home and abroad, by giving Saudi Arabia a pass for the brutal and premeditated murder of a U.S. resident and journalist. Outrageous,” Democratic Senator Dick Durbin said.
Some of Trump’s fellow Republicans have also vowed to break from him and push for firmer U.S. action against Saudi Arabia.
Representative Francis Rooney, a Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said Washington should apply the so-called Magnitsky Act to those responsible for Khashoggi’s death.
The legislation hits human rights violators with freezes on U.S. assets, U.S. travel bans, and prohibitions on Americans doing business with them.
Trump has placed the alliance with Saudi Arabia at the heart of his Middle East policy, and it was the first country he visited after becoming president in 2017.
His son-in-law Jared Kushner has developed a close relationship with MbS, and both he and Trump have tried to maintain the alliance despite an international furor over Khashoggi’s death.
Trump said on Tuesday he would not suspend arms sales to Riyadh. Some of his critics accuse him of exaggerating the importance of weapons sales to the American economy.
“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.
He also said the alliance with Riyadh has helped keep oil prices under control and boosts the U.S. economy.
“Right now we have oil prices in great shape. I’m not going to destroy the world economy and I’m not going to destroy the economy for our country by being foolish with Saudi Arabia.”
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo defended Trump’s support for Saudi Arabia. The United States was obligated to adopt policies that furthered U.S. national security interests, Pompeo told a news conference following a meeting with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu in Washington.
Cavusoglu said that Turkey is not entirely satisfied with the level of cooperation it is receiving from Saudi Arabia over Khashoggi’s murder and may seek a formal United Nations inquiry.
Reporting by David Alexander, Susan Heavey and Mohammad Zargham; editing by Jonathan Oatis and Grant McCool