Days after a U.N. expert called for further investigation of Saudi Arabian officials’ involvement in the killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, President Trump declined to say whether he would hold the country’s leaders responsible and asserted that it was in the United States’ best interest to “take their money.”
In a Sunday interview on “Meet the Press,” Trump revealed that he recently had “a great conversation” with Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in which he did not raise the issue of the U.N. report or Khashoggi’s killing in October.
“I think it’s been heavily investigated,” Trump said, when host Chuck Todd asked whether he would order the FBI to investigate, as the United Nations has recommended. “I’ve seen so many different reports.”
It was the latest instance of Trump prioritizing strategic and financial interest in the kingdom over the intelligence community’s assessment and concerns from his own party, which hold Mohammed primarily responsible for the killing of the dissident, who was a Virginia resident.
Although U.N. investigator Agnes Callamard did not find a “smoking gun” incriminating the crown prince, her report says that “every expert consulted finds it inconceivable that an operation of this scale could be implemented without the Crown Prince being aware, at a minimum, that some sort of mission of a criminal nature, directed at Mr. Khashoggi, was being launched.”
“Mr. Khashoggi’s killing constituted an extrajudicial killing for which the State of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is responsible,” the report states.
The CIA concluded in November that Mohammed had ordered Khashoggi’s brutal killing, and Trump has faced pressure from politicians and activists who wish to see the kingdom punished. But the president’s relationship with the crown prince has endured, to the concern of Democrats and even some Republicans — including Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), a close ally of Trump.
Soon after the CIA revealed those findings, Trump issued a statement that his administration was “standing by Saudi Arabia” for strategic reasons having to do with Iran and because it had agreed to invest “a record amount of money” in the United States. As for Mohammed’s involvement in the death, the statement reads: “It could very well be that the Crown Prince had knowledge of this tragic event — maybe he did and maybe he didn’t!”
There were echoes of that justification on Sunday as the president said he remained focused on the business and strategic relationship with Saudi Arabia, which the administration considers a key ally in the Middle East and says “serves as a bulwark against Iran and its proxies’ malign activities in the region."
Trump’s interview comes as tensions with Iran have escalated following explosions on two oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman and the downing of a U.S. drone, both of which the administration has blamed on Iran.
“I’m not like a fool that says, ‘We don’t want to do business with them,’ ” he said when pressed about the humanitarian concerns raised against Saudi Arabia’s leadership. “Take their money. Take their money, Chuck.”
“We’re going to protect Saudi Arabia,” he said. “Look, Saudi Arabia is buying $400 billion worth of things for us. That’s a very good thing.”
Trump added: “They buy massive amounts, $150 billion worth of military equipment that, by the way, we use. We use that military equipment. And unlike other countries that don’t have money and we have to subsidize everything. So Saudi Arabia is a big buyer of American product. That means something to me. It’s a big producer of jobs.”
Trump’s commitment to working with Saudi Arabia has earned rare rebukes from his party. Last winter, the Republican-controlled Senate unanimously voted on a resolution holding Mohammed responsible for Khashoggi’s death.
And on Thursday, it voted to block planned arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, a move the White House has said the president will veto.