U.S. President Donald Trump on Wednesday thanked Saudi Arabia for tamping down world oil prices, a day after saying the U.S. would not turn its back on Riyadh despite its responsibility for killing a dissident U.S.-based Saudi journalist.
From his retreat along the Atlantic Ocean in Florida, Trump praised the Saudis, second only to the U.S. as an oil producer but the biggest global exporter, for sending enough crude to world markets to keep oil prices in check.
Before leaving Washington for the Thanksgiving holiday, Trump told reporters at the White House that U.S. national security and economic interests outweigh any human rights concerns. He said turning his back on Saudi Arabia, despite the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, “would be a terrible mistake.”
“We’re staying with Saudi Arabia,” Trump announced. He noted the kingdom’s opposition to Iran and its purchases of American military equipment that mean, according to the president, “hundreds of thousands of jobs and billions of dollars of investment.”
Russia and China “are not going to get that gift,” Trump said before adding that oil prices would soar if the U.S.-Saudi relationship is broken up.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, in an interview with a Kansas City radio station, defended Trump’s stance favoring Saudi Arabia, while noting that the U.S. had sanctioned 17 Saudis believed involved in the Khashoggi killing.
“We are going to make sure that America always stands for human rights,” Pompeo said.
But the top U.S. diplomat said the protection of Americans was of paramount concern to Trump.
“The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has been an important national security partner to the United States, pushing back against the murderous regime in Iran that actually presents real risk to the American people, and we are determined to make sure that the relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia stays strong so that we can protect America,” Pompeo said.
‘Maybe he did, maybe he didn’t’
Asked at the White House about the CIA’s reported conclusion that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman likely knew about or ordered the plot to kill Khashoggi inside Riyadh’s consulate in Istanbul, Trump replied: “Maybe he did, maybe he didn’t.” Of the CIA’s finding, he declared: “They have nothing definitive.”
The president denied his decision to avoid harshly punishing the Saudis for the October 2 killing has anything to do with his personal business interests.
“I don’t make deals with Saudi Arabia. I don’t make money from Saudi Arabia,” Trump said. “Being president has cost me a fortune.”
Trump said earlier he understands that some lawmakers in Congress want to pursue sanctions against Riyadh for the killing “for political or other reasons” and said, “They are free to do so.”
“I will consider whatever ideas are presented to me, but only if they are consistent with the absolute security and safety of America,” Trump said.
But the leaders of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Republican Bob Corker and Democrat Robert Menendez, sent a letter to Trump Tuesday reminding him U.S. law requires him to examine whether the crown prince ordered Khashoggi’s death.
The Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act requires the president to determine if a foreign official is responsible for a human rights violation.
The act is named for Russian accountant Sergei Magnitsky who was apparently beaten to death in prison in 2009 after accusing Russian officials of tax fraud.
“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,” Senator Corker tweeted Tuesday. He added that Congress will consider “all the tools at our disposal” to determine the role of the crown prince in the Khashoggi killing.
Khashoggi lived in the United States, writing opinion articles for The Washington Post that were critical of the crown prince and Riyadh’s military involvement in Yemen.
His editor at the Post, Karen Attiah, described Trump’s statement as “full of lies and a blatant disregard for his own intelligence agencies. It also shows an unforgivable disregard for the lives of Saudis who dare criticize the regime. This is a new low.”
U.S Intelligence Community
Veterans of the U.S. Intelligence Community are also expressing their disdain with the president’s stance.
Former CIA Director John Brennan, who has repeatedly clashed with Trump, said on Twitter that Trump “excels in dishonesty” so now it is up to Congress to obtain and declassify the CIA findings on Khashoggi’s death.
“No one in Saudi Arabia — most especially the Crown Prince — should escape accountability for such a heinous act,” Brennan wrote.
Former CIA officer Ned Price wondered Tuesday “how appointed intelligence leaders could continue to serve after this betrayal is beyond me.”
A Saudi prosecutor cleared the crown prince of wrongdoing last week while calling for the death penalty for five of the 11 suspects indicted in the killing. The prosecutor said a total of 21 people have been detained.
Turkish officials concluded that Khashoggi was tortured and killed and his body dismembered. His remains have not been found.
Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Tuesday Turkey might formally seek a United Nations investigation of the killing if cooperation with Riyadh reaches an impasse.