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Trump stands by Saudi crown prince in Khashoggi killing

After initially warning of "severe punishment" for the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, President Trump issued a statement defending Saudi Arabia. (Video: JM Rieger/The Washington Post)

President Trump on Tuesday again questioned the CIA’s assessment that Saudi Arabia’s crown prince ordered the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and said the ruler’s repeated denials of his involvement had led the president to maintain close relations with the oil-rich kingdom.

“If you look at my statement, it’s maybe he did and maybe he didn’t,” Trump said in an interview with The Washington Post, referring to his comments last week about Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s role.

“But he denies it. And people around him deny it,” Trump said, noting that Mohammed had spoken to him about the case in three separate phone calls. “And the CIA did not say affirmatively he did it, either, by the way. I’m not saying that they’re saying he didn’t do it, but they didn’t say it affirmatively.”

In discussions with aides and advisers, the president has repeatedly pointed to the lack of a single piece of evidence, or a “smoking gun,” that would irrefutably lay the blame at Mohammed’s feet for ordering the death of Khashoggi, who was a Washington Post contributing columnist.

But intelligence assessments are rarely, if ever, ironclad. The CIA based its assessment about Mohammed on surveillance from inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, where a Saudi hit team killed Khashoggi; the intercepted communications of Saudi officials; and the agency’s understanding of Mohammed’s control over his government and security apparatus, according to people familiar with the CIA’s findings, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive intelligence.

Crown prince Mohammed bin Salman is ‘chief of the tribe’ in a cowed House of Saud

The agency has presented its analysis to lawmakers and administration officials. And lawmakers from both parties have said that the intelligence they’ve seen points to Mohammed’s direct involvement.

Trump said he weighed how to hold the Saudis to account for Khashoggi’s death against U.S. national interests, claiming that the kingdom held extraordinary sway over the U.S. economy and security in the Middle East.

“We have a very important ally in Saudi Arabia. We have an ally that has tremendous oil reserves, which are, frankly, they can make prices go up and down, and I want to keep them down,” Trump said.

The president personally took credit for a recent drop in oil prices, which he said was a direct result of a tough conversation he had with the Saudis.

“We have $52-a-barrel oil right now, and I called them about three months ago, before this whole thing happened with Khashoggi, and I let him have it about oil,” Trump said.

“We were up to $82 — probably two and a half months ago, we were up to $82 a barrel, and it was going up to $100, and that would’ve been like a massive tax increase and I didn’t want that. And I called them, and they let the oil start flowing, and we’re at $52,” Trump said.

Oil prices have plummeted recently, but that’s because of a number of factors, of which Saudi Arabia’s increased oil production is but one, according to analysts who also pointed to greater U.S. production and continuing Iranian sales.

As he has in the past, Trump said the Saudis were investing hundreds of billions of dollars in the U.S. economy, which could be jeopardized if he responded too harshly to Khashoggi’s killing.

President Trump’s full Washington Post interview transcript, annotated

“They could very easily invest $110 billion, $450 billion overall, over a period of time, fairly short period of time,” Trump said. “$110 billion in military. Russia and China would love to have those orders, and they’ll get them if we don’t.”

Military experts have countered that Trump overstates both the value of Saudi pledges to purchase American weapons and related equipment as well as the ease of switching suppliers.

In addition to preserving cheap oil, Trump said, the Saudis are essential to maintaining stability in the Middle East.

“It’s a dangerous, rough part of the world,” he said. “But they’ve been a great ally. Without them, Israel would be in a lot more trouble. We need to have a counterbalance to Iran.”

The president said that he had never done business with the Saudis and that his future financial interests had no bearing on his policy decisions.

“Never did business with them, never intend to do business with them,” Trump said. “I couldn’t care less. This is a very important job that I’m doing right now. The last thing I care about is doing business with people. I only do business for us.”

In the past, Trump has said he did business with Saudis, including selling them real estate.

But the president also seemed to envision a day when the United States wasn’t so beholden to the Saudis.

“It’s very important to have Saudi Arabia as an ally, if we’re going to stay in that part of the world,” Trump said. “Now, are we going to stay in that part of the world? One reason to is Israel. Oil is becoming less and less of a reason because we’re producing more oil now than we’ve ever produced. So, you know, all of a sudden it gets to a point where you don’t have to stay there.”

Lawmakers are considering voting on a resolution to withdraw U.S. support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen, a conflict that has spawned a humanitarian crisis.

Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a prominent Trump critic, has suggested that he might not vote against the resolution unless CIA Director Gina Haspel testifies before the committee Wednesday about the agency’s Khashoggi assessment.

Corker and other lawmakers want Haspel to appear alongside Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. So far, she has not agreed to do so.

National security adviser John Bolton told reporters Tuesday that the White House was not preventing Haspel from testifying. A spokesman for the CIA referred to Bolton’s comments on the matter.