For Trump, America First & No Penalty for Saudi in Khashoggi Case
President Donald Trump declared on Tuesday, 20 November he would not further punish Saudi Arabia for the murder of US-based columnist Jamal Khashoggi — making clear in an exclamation-filled statement that the benefits of good relations with the kingdom outweigh the possibility its crown prince ordered the killing.
But he rejected calls by many in Congress, including members of his own party, for a tougher response, and also dismissed reports from US intelligence agencies that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman must have at least known about such an audacious and intricate plot.
In many ways, the statement captured Trump's view of the world and foreign policy, grounded in economic necessity. It began with the words "America First!" followed by "The world is a very dangerous place!"
It came after weeks of debate over whether the president would or should come down hard on the Saudis and the crown prince in response to the killing of the Saudi columnist for The Washington Post who had criticized the royal family.
The US earlier sanctioned 17 Saudi officials suspected of being responsible for or complicit in the 2 October killing, but members of Congress have called for harsher actions, including cancelling arms sales.
Abandoning Saudi a Terrible Mistake: Trump
Asked by a reporter if he was saying that human rights are too expensive to fight for, he responded, "No, I'm not saying that at all." But then he switched the subject to the "terrorist nation" of Iran rather than any actions by Saudi Arabia.
The mistake was Trump's, said Republican Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, contending the administration has "blinders on" in comparing Iran and Saudi Arabia.
"It's a sign of weakness not to stand up to Saudi Arabia," Paul said in an interview. "Sometimes when you have two evils, maybe you don't support either side."
Republicans Refuse to Look Away
Republican Lindsey Graham, the South Carolina senator who is close to Trump, also disagreed with the president's statement, saying America must not lose its "moral voice" on the international stage.
"It is not in our national security interests to look the other way when it comes to the brutal murder of Mr Jamal Khashoggi," Graham said.
Likewise, Rep Adam Schiff, ranking Democrat on the House intelligence committee, said that to suggest that US silence can be bought with arms sales "undermines respect for the office of the presidency, the credibility of our intelligence community and America's standing as a champion of human rights."
Trump's statement, issued just before he pardoned the Thanksgiving turkey at the White House and left for the long holiday weekend in Florida, underscored his worldview of putting US interests — both financial and geopolitical — above all else.
Asked about any personal financial involvement, he said: "Saudi Arabia has nothing to do with me. What does have to do with me is putting America first."
Trump Backs Crown Prince
Trump said that King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed both "vigorously deny" any knowledge of the planning or execution of the killing. He also said the CIA has not made a conclusive determination about whether the crown prince ordered it.
A US official familiar with the case told The Associated Press last week that intelligence officials had concluded that the crown prince, the kingdom's de facto leader, did order the killing. Others familiar with the case, however, have cautioned that while it's likely the crown prince had a role, there continue to be questions about the degree.
How Khashoggi was Killed
Saudi prosecutors say a 15-man team sent to Istanbul exceeded its authority when the lead negotiator in the team decided to kill Khashoggi for refusing orders to return. The Saudis say the agents dismembered his body, which has not been found.
Democrats on Capitol Hill called on the CIA and other top intelligence agencies to publicly report what it has learned about the killing.
The CIA had no comment on the president's statement. However, former Director John Brennan, a frequent Trump critic, tweeted: "Since Mr. Trump excels in dishonesty, it is now up to members of Congress to obtain & declassify the CIA findings on Jamal Khashoggi's death. No one in Saudi Arabia — most especially the Crown Prince —should escape accountability for such a heinous act."
Trump said he knew some members of Congress would disagree with his decision. He said he would listen to their ideas, but only if they were focused on US national security.
Late last week, a bipartisan group of senators introduced legislation that calls for suspending weapons sales to Saudi Arabia, for sanctions on people who block humanitarian access in Yemen or support the Houthi rebels, and mandatory sanctions on those responsible for Khashoggi's death.
Cut Off Arm Sales to Saudi Arabia: Democrats
Democrats harshly criticised Trump's decision on Tuesday, 20 November and called on Congress to cut off arm sales to Saudi Arabia and end support for Saudi Arabia's war against the Iran-backed Houthi rebels in neighbouring Yemen, which is facing a humanitarian crisis.
Democratic Sen Tim Kaine of Virginia, where Khashoggi lived, said:
Democrat Dianne Feinstein of California, a member of the Senate intelligence committee, said Khashoggi was killed by agents of the Saudi government in a "premeditated murder, plain and simple," and she said she would introduce legislation requiring intelligence agencies to release an unclassified public assessment.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo defended Trump's decision, saying, "We are determined to ensure that we continue to make sure that we take care of the American people in all of the strategic decisions we make about with whom we work with around the world."