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In Post interview, Trump calls Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed a ‘strong person’ who ‘truly loves his country’

President Trump shows off posters as he talks with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia during a meeting in the Oval Office at the White House on March 20. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

President Trump retreated late Saturday from his stance that Saudi Arabia’s story about the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside their Turkish consulate was credible but still gave a strong vote of confidence to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, arguing the United States’ relationship with the kingdom is key to his administration’s policy objectives in the Middle East.

“Obviously there’s been deception and there’s been lies,” Trump said in an interview with The Washington Post when pressed on the many discrepancies in the changing accounts from the Saudis. “Their stories are all over the place.”

He did not call for the ouster of Mohammed and instead praised his leadership, calling the prince “a strong person, he has very good control.”

During the 20-minute interview, Trump repeatedly talked about the importance of the economic ties between the United States and Saudi Arabia and Mohammed’s role in that relationship.

“He’s seen as a person who can keep things under check,” he said. “I mean that in a positive way.”

The president said he does not prefer that another leader replace the 33-year old prince because he said he has read about others and Mohammed, known as MBS, is “considered by far the strongest person” and “he truly loves his country.”

Amid Khashoggi uproar, many Saudis see a foreign plot and rally around their prince

Trump declined to say how, or if, he wanted to sanction the country, saying it was too soon to know.

The president has come under criticism for his handling of the death of Khashoggi, a contributing columnist to The Washington Post, who went into the embassy Oct. 2 and never emerged. First, Saudi officials said Khashoggi left the embassy unharmed, but after 17 days, which included grisly news reports of the alleged murder of the journalist, Saudi officials said late Friday he was killed during an altercation inside the embassy.

Trump said Saturday the evidence that so many of the crown prince’s close associates were involved in the killing did not convince him that MBS was to blame. Some congressional Republicans, including Trump ally Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) and Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), have blamed the prince and called for the kingdom to be punished. A bipartisan group of lawmakers has signed a letter expressing alarm about Khashoggi’s death.

The president, though, said repeatedly during the interview that “no one” in his government had told him the crown prince was to blame.

The president said that he had not heard or seen a tape of the attack inside the embassy in Turkey — and that neither had Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. “I’ve heard all about the videos or the tapes. Nobody would get it faster than me. Nobody has been able to show it,” Trump said.

The Washington Post has reported that CIA officials have listened to an audio recording that Turkish officials say proves the journalist was killed and dismembered by a team of Saudi agents inside the consulate, according to people familiar with the matter.

In the interview, Trump made clear he has yet to be provided with any evidence that would make him believe MBS had direct knowledge that Khashoggi was going to be killed or order that it be done.

“Nobody has told me he’s responsible. Nobody has told me he’s not responsible. We haven’t reached that point. I haven’t heard either way,” he said. He added, echoing the Saudi version of events: “There is a possibility he found out about it afterward. It could be something in the building went badly awry. It could be that’s when he found about it. He could have known they were bringing him back to Saudi Arabia.”

He repeatedly displayed a realpolitik way of viewing the Middle East, praising Saudi Arabia for buying arms from the United States, reiterating the importance of oil prices and trashing Iran, saying: “We’ve got nobody else over there” to help protect Israel.

“I would love if he wasn’t responsible,” he said of MBS. “I think it’s a very important ally for us. Especially when you have Iran doing so many bad things in the world, it’s a good counterbalance to the world. Iran, they’re as evil as it gets. They’re probably laughing at this situation as they see it. Iran is as evil as it gets.”

If the United States stops selling arms to Saudi Arabia, Trump said China and Russia would benefit.

Trump once again touted that the Saudis plan to buy $110 billion in military equipment, but many of those deals have yet to be formalized and some analysts consider the overall number fanciful.

Trump defended Mohammed’s father, King Salman, saying he “does not know about it.” Asked about rumors that the king is not in good health, Trump said: “I spoke to him two days ago, he’s very sharp, he’s a wise man, he’s a wise person.”

White House officials said there has been a deliberate effort during the Khashoggi controversy to sideline Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and adviser, who has developed a strong relationship with MBS. Trump has grown frustrated with Kushner, White House officials said, though he offered his son-in-law some support in the Post interview.

“Jared doesn’t do business with Saudi Arabia. They’re two young guys. Jared doesn’t know him well or anything,” he said. “They are just two young people. They are the same age. They like each other I believe. Jared has done a very good job. I think he’ll make peace with Israel. But there are a lot of setbacks. This is a setback for that.”

Discussing other issues during the interview, Trump was in an ebullient mood after several days of campaigning.

“Don’t bet the ranch on the blue wave,” he said, referring to polls showing Democrats with a good chance of winning the House in the midterm elections. Trump would not, however, predict that Republicans would keep the House. “I don’t know,” he said.

Trump declined to say what he planned to do to stop the surge of Central America migrants heading to the U.S.-Mexico border — a development that has bedeviled his administration and caused tensions within the White House.

“I caused the problem because I made this country so economically and financially strong,” he said.

Unprompted, he brought up North Korea and bemoaned what he said is criticism from the news media over saying he was “in love” with Kim Jong Un, a dictator who has killed and starved his people.

He referred to letters he has received from Kim as evidence of their productive relationship.

“I’ll show you the letters,” he said. “They are like love letters.”