Trump did none of that. Instead, he used his appearances before television cameras — and his Twitter account — to repeatedly offer cover for the Saudis, conveying Riyadh’s condolences with more fervor than he used in relaying his personal feelings about the shooting.
“They are devastated in Saudi Arabia,” Trump told reporters Saturday, unprompted. “And the king will be involved in taking care of families and loved ones. He feels very strongly. He’s very, very devastated by what happened and what took place. Likewise, the crown prince. They are devastated by what took place in Pensacola.”
Trump’s defense of the Saudi government, which began just hours after Friday’s shooting, steadily became a more isolated position over the weekend as more information trickled out about the gunman and other Saudi nationals who were receiving training at the base.
On Sunday, the FBI said it presumed the shooting was terrorism.
“We are, as we do in most active-shooter investigations, working with the presumption that this was an act of terrorism,” said Rachel Rojas, special agent in charge of the FBI’s Jacksonville division.
Earlier Sunday, Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), normally a staunch Trump ally, was among several officials from the state pushing for more stringent scrutiny of foreigners who come to the United States for military training. Gaetz, who earlier called the killing an act of terrorism, also suggested the incident should change America’s relationship with Saudi Arabia.
“Of course, what happened in Pensacola has to inform on our ongoing relationship with Saudi Arabia,” he said on ABC News’s “This Week.”
Calls for a reassessment of U.S.-Saudi relations, which have been growing with bipartisan support in recent years, have not received much of a hearing from Trump.
“He decided some time ago that he would be in their corner,” said Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “And I don’t think that there’s any circumstance under which he would feel the need to rethink that.”
Trump, who often jumps to label shootings by foreigners from Muslim-majority countries as terrorism, had not done so as of Sunday evening.
The White House did not respond to requests for comment.
The president has personally chafed at the idea of not being able to sell arms to Saudi Arabia, even as lawmakers have repeatedly condemned the kingdom’s human rights record in the wake of the grisly murder of Washington Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi and civilian casualties from the Saudi-led coalition’s bombing campaign in Yemen.
Democrats tried to restrict arms sales to Saudi Arabia as part of a military budget deal negotiated this week, but the White House pushed back and rejected the idea, according to White House and congressional officials who requested anonymity to discuss internal negotiations.
Trump has shown little interest in Saudi Arabia’s human rights record, according to current and former aides.
The president has been especially blunt in describing his transactional approach to foreign affairs, particularly in the Middle East where his interests in oil, arms deals and terrorism intersect.
After intelligence officials concluded last year that Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman had ordered Khashoggi’s killing, 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.
In the statement, which began by declaring “The world is a very dangerous place!” Trump acknowledged that the crown prince may have known about the plot to kill Khashoggi, before waving it off by saying “maybe he did and maybe he didn’t!”
Chris Ruddy, a Trump friend and informal adviser, said the president appreciates the country’s great wealth and that they reached out to him early in the administration to stage an elaborate trip in 2017.
Ruddy said presidents have always dealt with imperfect countries that they believe can help them.
“Human rights are not his top priority because he believes the strategic interests of the United States should take priority,” he said. “They are our best Arab ally.”
Tom Bossert, Trump’s former homeland security adviser, said a working relationship with the kingdom is valuable, particularly given its strategic importance in U.S. policy toward Iran. “We need KSA to modernize and stay our partner against Iranian expansion and aggression. It is unsavory, but necessary to handle MBS with some tolerance,” Bossert said, referring to the Saudi crown prince.
But even as Trump has embraced that view, it has begun to fall out of favor with Republicans and Democrats in Congress. Some of Trump’s staunchest supporters have called for a tougher stance with the Saudis, a position that has gained strength in the wake of Friday’s shooting.
Florida Sen. Rick Scott (R), who immediately labeled the shooting terrorism, has called for a halt in the military program that brings hundreds of foreign nationals to U.S. bases to train alongside American troops. The alleged gunman in Friday’s attack, Ahmed Mohammed al-Shamrani, was a member of the Saudi Air Force participating in the training program. Several other Saudis who were also training on the base have been questioned by the FBI and Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper said Sunday that some of the trainees filmed the shooting.
Speaking on Fox News, Scott called on the Saudi government to provide more support for the investigation.
“The Saudi government has got to step up and say there will be full cooperation, they will make sure every student sits down with the FBI and gives up all the information so that we know exactly what happened here,” he said. “It’s disgusting this happened.”
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), another Trump ally, said Friday that the Saudi government would owe a debt because of the shootings.
Gaetz said he spoke with Saudi Ambassador Reema bint Bandar, who called to offer condolences. He said he told the ambassador that the United States does not want Saudi Arabia interfering in the case but expects its full cooperation should investigators need it.
“There are Saudis that are currently with us that are being investigated, and I made the point, as clearly as I possibly could, that we want no interference from the Kingdom as it relates to Saudis that we have,” he said on ABC News’s “This Week.” “And if there are Saudis that we do not have — that may have been involved in any way in the planning, inspiration, execution, or finance of this — that we expect Saudi intelligence to work with our government.”
Trump has yet to make a public call for full cooperation by the Saudis.
On Friday, the first time he faced cameras after the shooting, Trump began by reading a statement conveying the “sincere condolences” of the Saudi king.
“The king said that the Saudi people are greatly angered by the barbaric actions of the shooter and that this person, in no way, shape or form represents the feelings of the Saudi people who love the American people so much,” Trump said, repeating language posted to his Twitter account around the same time.
He went on to express his personal condolences, describing the shooting as “horrible.”
Alterman said Trump runs the risk of giving the Saudis a pass if he doesn’t publicly make clear that he expects full cooperation in the investigation. With the president regularly contradicting his diplomats, anything short of a directive from the Oval Office may lack credibility with the Saudis, he said.
“It’s really important that the president sets a line. There has to be complete and unrestricted cooperation, and it has to be delivered from the highest levels of the Saudi government,” he said. “I don’t want condolences, I want cooperation.”
Jeff Stein contributed to this report.