President Donald Trump signaled Tuesday that he will not take strong action against Saudi Arabia or its Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for the death and dismemberment of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
The White House has been struggling to square a widespread sense the crown prince directed the killing with the administration’s desire for Saudi support for its foreign policy priorities and a need to manage close relationships between bin Salman, the Trump administration and members of Trump’s family.
In an exclamation-mark laden statement subtitled “America First!” Trump said on Tuesday that “our intelligence agencies continue to assess all information, but it could very well be that the Crown Prince had knowledge of this tragic event — maybe he did and maybe he didn’t!”
Speaking to the press later in the day, Trump cited the Kingdom’s influence over oil prices and said, “if we abandon Saudi it would be a terrible mistake.” He also said he was “not going to destroy the economy of our country” over Khashoggi by giving up arms deals to Saudi Arabia.
“It’s a very simple equation for me. I’m about make America great again and I’m about America first,” Trump said.
In his statement, the President said, “we may never know all of the facts surrounding the murder of Mr. Jamal Khashoggi,” Trump continued in his statement. “In any case, our relationship is with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. They have been a great ally in our very important fight against Iran.”
Less than an hour after releasing his statement, Trump appeared in the White House Rose Garden to pardon two turkeys for Thanksgiving. He did not mention the journalist’s murder.
The President’s statement sets up a clash with lawmakers from both parties who have called for harsh measures against Saudi Arabia and expressed deep reservations about US support for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen. It once again pits Trump against his intelligence agencies and bolsters a regime that has admitted to killing a vocal critic and member of the press.
Lawmakers noted there is a cost to ignoring “our moral voice,” as Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican and strong Trump supporter, said. Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky was more pointed.
“I’m pretty sure this statement is Saudi Arabia First, not America First,” Paul tweeted.
Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker, a Tennessee Republican, said, “I never thought I’d see the day a White House would moonlight as a public relations firm for the crown prince of Saudi Arabia.”