President Donald Trump vowed on Tuesday to remain a “steadfast partner” of Saudi Arabia despite saying that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman may have known about the plan to murder dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi last month.
Defying intense pressure from U.S. lawmakers to impose tougher sanctions on Saudi Arabia, Trump also said he would not cancel military contracts with the kingdom. He said it would be a “foolish” move that would only benefit Russia and China, competitors of the United States in the arms market.
Trump said U.S. intelligence agencies were still studying the evidence around Khashoggi’s killing inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2 and who planned it. Since the murder, Trump has taken varying positions on how to react, including possible sanctions.
But on Tuesday, Trump stressed Saudi Arabia’s weapons purchases and its role in keeping world oil prices low as influencing his decision.
“It’s all about, for me, very simple. It’s America first,” Trump said, adding: “I’m not going to destroy the world economy and I’m not going to destroy the economy for our country by being foolish with Saudi Arabia.”
Speaking at the White House to reporters before departing for Florida, Trump said of the possibility that the Saudi crown prince had a hand in the murder: “Maybe he did, maybe he didn’t” and argued that the CIA had not made a definitive determination.
His comments contradicted the CIA, which believes Khashoggi’s death was ordered directly by the crown prince, Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler widely known by his initials MbS.
Trump was accused by Democratic lawmakers of undermining his own intelligence agencies and failing to confront Saudi Arabia over a human rights atrocity.
“Human rights is more than just a phrase, it has to mean something. And that means standing up and condemning a brazen murder by a foreign government. Everyone who played a role in this killing must be held accountable,” Senator Dianne Feinstein said.
Democratic and Republican lawmakers have urged Trump to drop his support for MbS over the Khashoggi case, but the president has been reluctant.
Trump said on Tuesday that both Saudi Arabia’s King Salman and MbS “vigorously deny any knowledge of the planning or execution of the murder,” and that the truth may never be known.
After offering numerous contradictory explanations for Khashoggi’s disappearance, Riyadh said last week he had been killed and his body dismembered when “negotiations” to convince him to return to Saudi Arabia failed. It said allegations the prince had ordered the killing were false.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said in Washington on Tuesday that Turkey was not entirely satisfied with the level of cooperation it was receiving from Riyadh on Khashoggi’s murder and may seek a formal United Nations inquiry.
Republican and Democratic leaders of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee said they had asked Trump for a second human rights probe over Khashoggi’s killing.
Similarly, Representative Francis Rooney, a Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said Washington should apply the so-called Magnitsky Act to those responsible for Khashoggi’s death.
The law freezes U.S. assets of human rights violators and prohibits Americans from doing business with them.