WASHINGTON — 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 that the crown prince directed the killing with its 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 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!”
“That being said,” Trump continued, “we may never know all of the facts surrounding the murder of Mr. Jamal Khashoggi. 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 the 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 have 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.
Trump is expected to receive a CIA assessment on Khashoggi’s murder later on Tuesday.
A senior administration official told CNN that the report, delivered in physical form, is an assessment of all the intelligence gathered so far, but will not present a final conclusion. That’s in keeping with intelligence community practice: agencies assign a confidence level to their findings because intelligence isn’t conclusive.
And though sources tell CNN that the CIA has assessed with high confidence that the prince directed Khashoggi’s murder, which was conducted by members of the prince’s inner circle, the fact that they don’t make a final conclusion gives the White House an out.
The statement and the expected CIA report come seven weeks after the father of four entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2 to seek marriage documents. Trump was briefed by CIA Director Gina Haspel, who traveled to Turkey to meet with officials there about their findings and allegedly heard a recording the Turkish government had made of the killing.
Saudi Arabia initially insisted the Virginia resident left its consulate, but after a few weeks in which its story constantly shifted, officials admitted in late October that the murder was premeditated and was conducted by a group of 15 men from various government agencies and some from the prince’s closest circle of advisors.
The Turks have said Khashoggi was set upon, beaten and dismembered soon after he entered the consulate. Saudi officials have said that the team was sent to convince the journalist to return to Saudi Arabia and that he was mistakenly killed with an overdose meant to temporarily subdue him. It is still not clear where Khashoggi’s body is or what happened to it.
While Riyadh has maintained that neither the crown prince nor his father knew of the operation, intelligence officials, lawmakers and analysts familiar with the country have assessed that an operation of this nature and scale could not happen without the direction and awareness of the crown prince, who controls all the country’s security services.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican and strong Trump supporter, told NBC on Sunday that the team of 15 “don’t get on two airplanes, go to Turkey and chop a guy up in a consulate who is a critic of the crown prince without the crown prince having known about it. And sanctioned it.”
‘Worst cover-up ever’
Saudi Arabia announced last week that 11 men had been indicted for the “rogue operation” and that five would face the death penalty.
Trump, who derided the Saudi explanations as “the worst cover-up ever” in late October, made clear in his statement that his view on the killing is transactional.
Citing promised Saudi investment in the US that could generate jobs and military contracts worth billions, even as he inflated their worth, Trump said that “if we foolishly cancel these contracts, Russia and China would be the enormous beneficiaries and very happy to acquire all of this newfound business.”