US President Donald Trump said in an interview that aired on Sunday the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was “very vicious” but that he wants to stick with Saudi Arabia as a close ally in the Middle East.
Under pressure to punish Saudi Arabia for Khashoggi’s death inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2, Trump questioned the alleged role of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is known as MbS and is the kingdom’s de facto ruler.
Trump said in an interview with “Fox News Sunday”, adding that “many people” also said the crown prince had no knowledge of the killing.
The interview was taped on Friday, hours before government sources said the CIA had briefed the Trump administration on the murder and its belief that MbS ordered it.
Trump said on Saturday that the CIA assessment was “very premature” and in the interview that aired on Sunday he said it may never be possible to know who ordered Khashoggi’s murder.
“Well, will anybody really know?” he said.
“He did have certainly people that were reasonably close to him and close to him that were probably involved … But at the same time we do have an ally and I want to stick with an ally that in many ways has been very good.”
Trump faces intense pressure from senior Democratic and Republican lawmakers to take tougher action against Saudi Arabia. Some have said the United States should suspend arms sales to the kingdom and drop his support for MbS, but Trump has so far resisted that pressure.
The U.S. government on Thursday imposed economic sanctions on 17 Saudi officials for their alleged role in the killing, but the sanctions did not target the Saudi government.
Saudi Arabia is a major oil supplier and a close ally of the United States in countering Iranian power in the Middle East.
Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, a close ally of Trump, said on Sunday he had no doubt about MbS’ involvement in ordering the murder of Khashoggi.
“They are an important ally but when it comes to the crown prince, he’s irrational, he’s unhinged and I think he’s done a lot of damage to the relationship (between) the United States and Saudi Arabia. And I have no intention of working with him ever again,” he said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
Trump said his administration has a taped recording related to the Khashoggi murder, provided by the Turkish government, but that he has not listened to it and does not want to.
“I know everything that went on in the tape without having to hear it,” he said. “It was very violent, very vicious and terrible.”
TRUMP DEFENDING BIN SALMAN’S ‘LIES’: WASHINGTON POST
“Rather than reject this contemptible cover-up, President Trump, who had pledged to ‘get to the bottom’ of the case, went along with it.”
The editorial said the U.S. Treasury Department “imposed sanctions on 17 mostly low-level suspects already implicated by the Saudis, while excusing both Mohammed bin Salman and top intelligence officials.”
“Now we learn that Mr. Trump backed the Saudi leader despite a conclusion by the CIA that the prince was, in fact, responsible for ordering Khashoggi’s assassination,” it added, referring to a leaked intelligence assessment reported last week by the Post.
The Post reported that intelligence officials have “high confidence” in their assessment and have briefed the president on their evidence, which includes an audio recording of the killing and phone calls by the leader of the “kill team” as well as the Saudi ambassador in Washington.
“Mr. Trump nevertheless has refused to accept Mohammed bin Salman’s responsibility, perhaps because that would mean acknowledging that the White House’s outsize bet on the 33-year-old prince as a strategic ally was badly mistaken.”
A number of legislators from both parties have spoken up in rejection of the Saudi cover-up and the administration’s response, the article said.
“Three Republican senators — Lindsay O. Graham (S.C.), Todd C. Young (Ind.) and Susan Collins (Maine) — have joined three Democrats, including Robert Menendez (N.J.), the ranking minority member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, to back legislation that would require the administration to sanction within 30 days ‘any official of the government of Saudi Arabia or member of the royal family’ tied to the Khashoggi murder by ‘credible evidence.’
“Given the CIA conclusion, that would cover Mohammed bin Salman. The bill would also suspend most U.S. arms sales and deliveries to Saudi Arabia until it ‘honored a complete cessation of hostilities in the Yemen war’ and stopped interfering with deliveries of humanitarian aid.”
The Post wrote that Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker is “giving Mr. Trump a chance to tell the truth about Mohammed bin Salman and adjust his policies accordingly, a correction that is essential to a rational and workable U.S. strategy in the Middle East.”
“If the White House instead continues to abet the crown prince in his lies,” the Post said Congress must act “swiftly and decisively.”
Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist working for The Washington Post, was killed shortly after he entered the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul Oct. 2.
Saudi Arabia had offered shifting explanations for Khashoggi’s disappearance before suggesting he was killed during a botched rendition operation by rogue agents.