PALM BEACH, Fla. — President Trump on Thursday contradicted the CIA’s assessment that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman had ordered the killing of Washington Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi, insisting that the agency had “feelings” but did not firmly place blame for the death.
Trump, in defiant remarks to reporters from his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida, defended his continued support for Mohammed in the face of a CIA assessment that the crown prince had ordered the killing.
“He denies it vehemently,” Trump said of the crown prince. He reiterated that his own conclusion was that “maybe he did, maybe he didn’t.”
“I hate the crime, I hate the coverup. I will tell you this: The crown prince hates it more than I do, and they have vehemently denied it,” Trump said. Mohammed has not shown remorse for the killing, which was carried out by some of his close advisers.
Asked who should be held accountable for the death of Khashoggi, who was killed at the Saudi Consulate in Turkey on Oct. 2, Trump again refused to place blame — instead espousing a grim view of the world that he often shares with advisers.
“Maybe the world should be held accountable because the world is a very, very vicious place,” the president said.
He also seemed to suggest that all U.S. allies were guilty of the same behavior, declaring that if others were held to the standard to which critics have held Saudi Arabia in recent days, “we wouldn’t be able to have anyone for an ally.”
Trump said “not at all” when asked if he was concerned that his refusal to substantially punish Saudi Arabia would send a message to the rest of the world that people in power can do as they please.
The president has grown annoyed with the constant attention on the killing, advisers say, and sought to effectively close the matter Tuesday with an eight-paragraph, exclamation-mark-packed statement that smeared Khashoggi, questioned the CIA and praised Saudi Arabia.
Trump’s Thursday remarks came after he held a conference call with U.S. military officers overseas, during which he repeatedly praised his administration and sought to draw the officers into discussions of domestic policy. He asked military officials on several occasions to back him up on trade, immigration and other issues — and was sometimes rebuked by answers that did not square with his worldview.
Returning to a recurrent pre-election theme, the president also warned the nation about threats he said were being posed by a caravan of people seeking eventual asylum in the United States.
He told reporters that he had shut down “parts of the border” because of “rioting on the other side” and that he was prepared to do so again. It was not clear what the president meant — but it marked the first public reflection of a frequent private threat to close the border. Mexican officials have repeatedly complained about Trump’s rhetoric.
“They called me up, and I signed an order,” said Trump, who declined when asked whether he would publicly release the document. Department of Homeland Security officials said Trump was referring to the temporary closure of an asylum crossing.
He also said that he had “given the okay” for U.S. troops to use lethal force against anyone crossing the border who represented a threat. U.S. military forces are typically not allowed to take such actions, and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has already signaled his disinclination to change that policy. There has been considerable consternation in the administration about the policy, administration officials said.
The president’s televised holiday phone call with U.S. military officers was meant to deflect criticism he has faced for not yet visiting a war zone, as previous presidents have done. Asked whether he would be traveling to visit soldiers, Trump said, “We’re going to do some interesting things at the appropriate time.” He declined to give any further explanation.
Yet if the Thanksgiving morning activity was meant to allay one political firestorm, the president’s remarks on Khashoggi only inflamed another.
Time and again, the president has sided with Saudi officials and their explanations of the events leading to the killing, rather than with the U.S. intelligence community.
He sided anew against the CIA on Thursday, noting that in Saudi Arabia “at the top level they say they did not commit this atrocity.”
Again on Thursday, Trump indicated that the ally’s economic contributions weighed on him more than the death of a U.S. resident.
“Do people really want me to give up hundreds of thousands of jobs?” he asked when pressed about whether Saudi Arabia’s actions deserved a stiffer penalty.
As he has before, he credited the nation for a drop in oil prices — while also crediting himself for “jawboning” Saudi Arabia — and said that a global depression could arise if the price of oil were to increase.
He alluded to the close relationship that Mohammed had forged with Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner over the course of the administration. The two have repeatedly talked as part of Kushner’s Middle Eastern portfolio.
“Till this happened, there were a lot of people saying a lot of good things about the crown prince,” Trump said.
Trump also continued for a second day his dispute with Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. over the judgments of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, which the president has regularly castigated.
In a rare public statement, Roberts on Wednesday defended the nation’s judges, saying that an independent judiciary was critical to democracy.
Trump opened Thanksgiving morning with tweets critical of the jurist.
“Justice Roberts can say what he wants, but the 9th Circuit is a complete & total disaster. It is out of control, has a horrible reputation, is overturned more than any Circuit in the Country,” he tweeted, repeating a falsehood he has often leveled at the court.
Talking to reporters later, Trump said he liked and respected Roberts but added that “I think we need to use some common sense.” The president has often complained to advisers about the vote Roberts made to uphold a key portion of the Affordable Care Act.
He also escalated his criticism of the appellate court, saying that “we’re going to have to stop that somehow.”
“It’s a disgrace,” Trump said of judges stopping the desires of his administration.