World / Crime & Legal

Putting 'America First,' Trump stands by Saudis, admitting 'maybe' crown prince knew of slaying


President Donald Trump said he wouldn’t downgrade U.S. relations with Saudi Arabia over the murder of columnist Jamal Khashoggi, regardless of whether Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered his death.

In an unconventional statement on Tuesday headlined “America First!” Trump said that Saudi Arabia serves as a bulwark against Iran and buys billions of dollars worth of U.S. weapons and other goods. That, he argued, outweighs the “horrible crime” perpetrated against Khashoggi, a writer for the Washington Post and a critic of the crown prince.

“The world is a very dangerous place!” Trump said in the 635-word statement, punctuated with eight exclamation points. “It could very well be that the Crown Prince had knowledge of this tragic event — maybe he did and maybe he didn’t! That being said, we may never know all of the facts surrounding the murder of Mr. Jamal Khashoggi.”

Trump said on Saturday that the U.S. would issue a “very full report” on the killing by Tuesday, following media reports that the CIA has concluded Prince Mohammed ordered Khashoggi’s assassination.

Trump suggested he would resist efforts by Congress to impose additional punishment on the kingdom after his administration sanctioned 17 individuals alleged to have participated in the murder.

“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,” he said. “I will consider whatever ideas are presented to me, but only if they are consistent with the absolute security and safety of America.”

Several news organizations, including the Washington Post and New York Times, reported last week that the CIA concluded the crown prince ordered Khashoggi’s murder at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul last month, contradicting the kingdom’s claim he wasn’t involved. CIA officials have high confidence in their conclusion, which is based on multiple sources of intelligence, the Post reported.

Trump’s statement contrasted with the stance he struck in a CBS “Sixty Minutes” interview aired Oct. 14. Asked then whether the prince ordered the killing, Trump responded,”We’ll probably be able to find out” and “we would be very upset and angry if that were the case.”

Trump’s statement made no mention of Khashoggi’s role as a journalist for the Washington Post, or the importance of protecting the freedom of the press.

His remarks differed from the message sent by Vice President Mike Pence during his recent trip to Asia, where he talked about the importance of a free press — and repeatedly talked about Khashoggi’s death in that context.

“The murder of Jamal Khashoggi was an atrocity,” Pence told reporters Saturday in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea. “It was also an affront to a free and independent press and the United States is determined to hold all of those accountable who are responsible for that murder.”

Trump said Tuesday the U.S. “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 addition to the kingdom’s help combating “Radical Islamic Terrorism,” Trump cited purchases of U.S. weaponry and other U.S. investment that he pegged at $450 billion — a disputed figure — and said “they have been very responsive to my requests to keeping oil prices at reasonable levels.”