Trump reaffirms position of US as ‘steadfast partner of Saudi Arabia’
WASHINGTON - US President Donald Trump gave his strongest endorsement of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz since the death of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, rejecting reports that the US Central Intelligence Agency concluded the crown prince ordered the killing and calling Saudi Arabia “a steadfast partner.”
Trump’s remarks in recent days, echoed by leaders of the US Defence and State departments, signal that the United States is unlikely to impose additional sanctions on Saudi officials over the killing in early October of Khashoggi, a US-based journalist, inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul.
But Trump’s defence of Crown Prince Mohammed brought instant criticism from members of the US Congress, threats to halt arms sales to Saudi Arabia and a demand by two leading US senators that the Trump administration investigate whether the crown prince had any role in Khashoggi’s killing.
Speaking to journalists on November 22 at his retreat in Florida, Trump disputed that the CIA had blamed the crown prince and said that the agency’s leaders “have feelings certain ways.”
“I hate the crime, I hate the cover-up,” Trump said of the murder, which Saudi Arabia has blamed on a rogue Saudi kidnapping team. “I will tell you this: The crown prince hates it more than I do, and they have vehemently denied it.”
He said the United States would remain “a steadfast partner of Saudi Arabia to ensure the interests of our country, Israel and all other partners in the region” in a statement on November 20.
Trump acknowledged uncertainty about whether Crown Prince Mohammed or Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud had a role in Khashoggi’s death but suggested the actions of any individuals were not important. “Our relationship is with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia,” Trump said in his statement. “They have been a great ally in our very important fight against Iran.”
Shortly after Trump released his statement, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo underscored the message at a news conference. “The United States will continue to have a relationship with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. They are an important partner of ours,” Pompeo said. “This is a long, historic commitment and one that is absolutely vital to America’s national security.”
And on November 21, US Defence Secretary James Mattis defended the “strategic relationship” between the United States and Saudi Arabia. “We’re not going to apologise for our human rights stance,” Mattis said. “Nor are we going to apologise for working with Saudi Arabia when it’s necessary for the good of innocent people who are in trouble.”
Trump noted that the United States has imposed sanctions on 17 Saudis suspected of involvement in the death of Khashoggi, a critic of the royal family, and pointed to hundreds of billions of Saudi dollars coming to the United States through investments and arms purchases. “Do people really want me to give up hundreds of thousands of jobs?” Trump told reporters November 23. “And frankly, if we went by this standard, we wouldn’t be able to have anybody as an ally.”
Trump insisted that “foolishly cancelling these contracts” worth billions of dollars would only benefit Russia and China, which would be “very happy to acquire all of this newfound business. It would be a wonderful gift to them directly from the United States!”
Trump said the United States needed a “counterbalance” to Iran, which he called a “terrorist nation.”
“If we abandon Saudi Arabia, it would be a terrible mistake,” Trump said.
Members of the Democratic Party said Trump’s defence of the crown prince could backfire by leading the US Congress to block arms sales to Saudi Arabia. US Senator Dianne Feinstein, an influential Democrat from California, said on Twitter that she would “vote against any future arms sales and appropriation to Saudi Arabia.”
Senator Chris Murphy, a Democrat from Connecticut and member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said on Twitter: “When it comes to the murder of Khashoggi, the [Trump] administration appears unlikely to take decisive action, so it’s up to Congress to determine the consequences.”
Writing on Twitter shortly after Trump’s statement, Joel Simon, executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, said Trump “has just asserted that if you do enough business with the US, you are free to murder journalists. That’s an appalling message to send to Saudi Arabia and the world.” The New York-based committee promotes media freedom around the world.