Donald Trump has said that Saudi crown prince Mohammad Bin Salman may have known about the plot to kill journalist Jamal Khashoggi but insisted that America will stand with its ally nonetheless.
In his most substantive response to Mr Khashoggi’s murder at the hands of Saudi officials, the US president issued a 600-word statement calling the killing "horrible" but playing up the importance of the US-Saudi relationship.
Mr Trump said: "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!"
However he added: "That being said, 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."
The comments mark the clearest indication yet that Mr Trump will not break ties with the Crown Prince despite claims – and reportedly the conclusion of his own CIA – that he was involved in the plot.
Mr Trump noted the $450 billion the Saudi Kingdom has agreed to invest – including $110 billion worth of future arms deals – warning: "If we foolishly cancel these contracts, Russia and China would be the enormous beneficiaries."
The US president also said that his administration had sanctioned 17 Saudi individuals believed to have been involved in Mr Khashoggi’s killing, which took place in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey.
The statement amounted to a reaffirmation of the Trump administration’s support for the crown prince, who has been under fierce scrutiny after the killing of Mr Khashoggi, a critic of the Kingdom’s current leadership who wrote columns for the Washington Post and lived in Virginia.
Over the last two years Jared Kushner, Mr Trump’s son-in-law, has cultivated a close relationship with the crown prince, who is widely expected to inherit control of the Kingdom.
Democratic and Republican lawmakers have urged Mr Trump to drop his support for the Crown prince, but the president has been reluctant. On Tuesday, Democratic Congressman Steve Cohen, who sits on the Judiciary Committee, criticised Mr Trump’s statement, saying "we wouldn’t be selling arms to North Korea".
Dianne Feinstein, a leading Democratic senator, has said she would not vote for any future weapons sales or appropriations for Saudi Arabia.
She was "shocked" that Mr Trump would not punish Saudi Crown Prince for the "premeditated murder" of Mr Khashoggi, a US resident, she said in a statement.
It comes after Germany confirmed on Monday that it was halting previously approved arms exports to Saudi Arabia amid the fallout from the murder of the journalist.
Mike Pompeo, the US Secretary of State, defended Mr Trump’s stance on Tuesday, saying the administration had a duty to ensure Americans’ national security.
Mr Pompeo, who spoke following a meeting with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu in Washington, said the US has "a long, historic" relationship with Saudi Arabia.
"It’s a mean, nasty world out there, the Middle East in particular," he said during a press conference.
"It is the president’s obligation, indeed the state department’s duty as well, to ensure that we adopt policies that further America’s national security. So as the president said today, the United States will continue to have a relationship with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. They’re an important partner of ours."
Mr Pompeo also highlighted that the US has sanctioned 17 Saudi individuals who have been linked to Mr Khashoggi’s killing.
Later on Tuesday Mr Trump said a CIA report into who was behind Mr Khashoggi’s killing found "nothing definitive."
"The CIA looked at it," he told journalists at the White House. "They have nothing definitive."
The president also said he would be willing to meet the Crown Prince if he attends the G-20 summit in Argentina later this month.
Meanwhile Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said on Tuesday it was "shameful" that Mr Trump had pledged support for Saudi Arabia despite the murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi in its consulate.
Read Trump’s full statement below
The world is a very dangerous place!
The country of Iran, as an example, is responsible for a bloody proxy war against Saudi Arabia in Yemen, trying to destabilize Iraq’s fragile attempt at democracy, supporting the terror group Hezbollah in Lebanon, propping up dictator Bashar Assad in Syria (who has killed millions of his own citizens), and much more. Likewise, the Iranians have killed many Americans and other innocent people throughout the Middle East. Iran states openly, and with great force, “Death to America!” and “Death to Israel!” Iran is considered “the world’s leading sponsor of terror.”
On the other hand, Saudi Arabia would gladly withdraw from Yemen if the Iranians would agree to leave. They would immediately provide desperately needed humanitarian assistance. Additionally, Saudi Arabia has agreed to spend billions of dollars in leading the fight against Radical Islamic Terrorism.
After my heavily negotiated trip to Saudi Arabia last year, the Kingdom agreed to spend and invest $450 billion in the United States. This is a record amount of money. It will create hundreds of thousands of jobs, tremendous economic development, and much additional wealth for the United States. Of the $450 billion, $110 billion will be spent on the purchase of military equipment from Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon and many other great U.S. defense contractors. If we foolishly cancel these contracts, Russia and China would be the enormous beneficiaries – and very happy to acquire all of this newfound business. It would be a wonderful gift to them directly from the United States!
The crime against Jamal Khashoggi was a terrible one, and one that our country does not condone. Indeed, we have taken strong action against those already known to have participated in the murder. After great independent research, we now know many details of this horrible crime. We have already sanctioned 17 Saudis known to have been involved in the murder of Mr. Khashoggi, and the disposal of his body.
Representatives of Saudi Arabia say that Jamal Khashoggi was an “enemy of the state” and a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, but my decision is in no way based on that – this is an unacceptable and horrible crime. King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman vigorously deny any knowledge of the planning or execution of the murder of Mr. Khashoggi. 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, 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. The United States intends to remain a steadfast partner of Saudi Arabia to ensure the interests of our country, Israel and all other partners in the region. It is our paramount goal to fully eliminate the threat of terrorism throughout the world!
I understand there are members of Congress who, for political or other reasons, would like to go in a different direction – and 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. After the United States, Saudi Arabia is the largest oil producing nation in the world. They have worked closely with us and have been very responsive to my requests to keeping oil prices at reasonable levels – so important for the world. As President of the United States I intend to ensure that, in a very dangerous world, America is pursuing its national interests and vigorously contesting countries that wish to do us harm. Very simply it is called America First!