WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump delivered a full-throated defense of Saudi Arabia on Tuesday even as he conceded “it could very well be” that the kingdom’s crown prince knew about the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.
"The crime against Jamal Khashoggi was a terrible one, and one that our country does not condone," Trump said in an oddly worded statement filled with exclamation points. "Indeed, we have taken strong action against those already known to have participated in the murder."
Trump said U.S. 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!"
" ... 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 president's statement continued. "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!"
The Washington Post and other news outlets reported last Friday that the CIA had concluded that the crown prince, the country’s de facto ruler, ordered Khashoggi’s murder.
On Saturday, Trump said the CIA had not "assessed anything yet" and called Saudi Arabia a "spectacular ally." Trump said his administration would produce a “full report” detailing the circumstances surrounding Khashoggi’s death, including “who did it.”
Trump's statement cast doubt on the CIA's assessment, with the president highlighting denials from the Saudi royal family and their portrayal of Khashoggi as a dangerous Islamist.
"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," Trump said. "King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman vigorously deny any knowledge of the planning or execution of the murder of Mr. Khashoggi."
He made clear he would not take any further action against Saudi Arabia. In recent weeks, the Trump administration has barred 21 Saudis from traveling to the U.S., and imposed sanctions on 17 Saudi individuals in connection with Khashoggi's killing.
Critics say those steps are inadequate – noting they target underlings who are likely already in jail in Saudi Arabia.
But in his statement Tuesday, Trump called that “strong action.” And he accused lawmakers who have pushed for tougher action of being politically motivated.
"I understand there are members of Congress who, for political or other reasons, would like to go in a different direction," Trump said, adding that he would consider "whatever ideas are presented to me" but only if they protect U.S. security. "Very simply it is called America First!"
Saudi Arabia has repeatedly denied that Salman had any involvement in the death of Khashoggi, who was killed Oct. 2 inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Khashoggi, a U.S. resident and critic of the Saudi regime who fled his home country last year, had gone into the diplomatic facility to get documents he needed for his upcoming marriage to a Turkish woman.
Turkish officials say their evidence shows that Khashoggi was brutally murdered and dismembered inside the consulate by Saudi operatives. Saudi officials have offered shifting accounts – first claiming Khashoggi left the consulate unharmed and eventually conceding he was murdered there. Khashoggi’s remains have still not been found.