U.S. President Donald Trump said on Tuesday that he stood by Saudi Arabia’s crown prince despite a CIA assessment that he ordered the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and pleas from U.S. senators for Trump to condemn the kingdom’s de facto ruler.
Trump refused to comment on whether Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was complicit in the murder, but he provided perhaps his most explicit show of support for the prince since Khashoggi’s death more than two months ago.
“He’s the leader of Saudi Arabia. They’ve been a very good ally,” Trump said in an interview in the Oval Office.
Asked by Reuters if standing by the kingdom meant standing by the prince, known as MbS, Trump responded: “Well, at this moment, it certainly does.”
Some members of Saudi Arabia’s ruling family are agitating to prevent MbS from becoming king, sources close to the royal court have told Reuters, and believe that the United States and Trump could play a determining role.
“I just haven’t heard that,” Trump said. “Honestly, I can’t comment on it because I had not heard that at all. In fact, if anything, I’ve heard that he’s very strongly in power.”
While Trump has condemned the murder of Khashoggi, a U.S. resident and Washington Post columnist who was often critical of MbS, he has given the benefit of the doubt to the prince with whom he has cultivated a deep relationship.
Trump again reiterated on Tuesday that the “crown prince vehemently denies” involvement in a killing that has sparked outrage around the world.
Trump has come under fierce criticism from fellow Republicans in the Senate over the issue, particularly after CIA Director Gina Haspel briefed them. Last month, the CIA assessed that MbS ordered the killing, which Trump called “very premature.”
“You have to be willfully blind not to come to the conclusion that this was orchestrated and organized by people under the command of MbS,” Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, a Trump ally, said last week.
Trump is willfully blind here, the question is why. The answer of course is that Trump is neck deep in Saudi money laundering along with his son-in-law Jared Kushner, and it looks like House Democrats are more ready to stick a fork in Jared
Rep. Eliot Engel, who is poised to lead the House Foreign Affairs Committee, plans to conduct a thorough review of US policy towards Saudi Arabia -- and that could include Jared Kushner's ties to the crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, according to a Democratic aide.
Engel is "committed to conducting a top-to-bottom review of U.S. policy towards Saudi Arabia and that includes what has driven the US response to the Jamal Khashoggi murder," said spokesman Tim Mulvey, referring to the October killing of The Washington Post journalist in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
Asked if that meant probing the ties between Kushner and the crown prince, Mulvey said: "Everything is on the table."
The comments are the latest sign that the White House's handling of the Khashoggi murder is bound to face fresh scrutiny in the new Congress -- beyond this month in the final days of an all-Republican controlled Capitol.
In the Senate of course, things are more "complicated".
The Senate could vote this week to withdraw US support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee is also weighing whether to also vote on legislation to suspend arm sales with the country and sanction individuals responsible for the murder of Khashoggi -- including potentially the crown prince and his alleged role in ordering the killing. But "intense" negotiations between Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker, a Tennessee Republican and the ranking Democrat, Bob Menendez of New Jersey, over the contents of the sanctions bill are still ongoing, according to an aide familiar with the process.
Corker objects to the language in the bill by Menendez and Sen. Todd Young, R-Indiana, that would impose mandatory sanctions on people involved in the Khashoggi murder under the Global Magnitsky Act. The law currently requires the administration to make a determination about a human rights violation and then the US can impose sanctions.
"Our nation typically has tried to punish the countries for that type of behavior but not the individuals. So, I'm actually trying to keep it strong because I think what would happen (under the Menendez-Young bill) is if the administration knew they had to sanction, they would likely not find him responsible for the killing. I'd rather them find him responsible for the killing, him become an ever-greater pariah in the world and us find other ways of pushing back on what they've done," Corker said.
But Menendez told CNN about Corker: "He wants to neuter the Global Magnitsky mandatory (sanctions under the bill) -- and that's really one of the significant parts of the bill. A deal is always possible but right now we are not there."
Corker warned the Menendez bill could have broader impact around the world beyond Saudi Arabia.
"He's trying to add language that says if the crown prince is found guilty then sanctions be automatically be put in place. That changes the entire relationship that we've had with world leaders. We ... know Putin has tried to kill people with chemical weapons, but we typically have not sanctioned the leaders, we've sanctioned the countries," Corker explained.
Corker's afraid other countries could start sanctioning Trump, his family, and members of Congress. He should
be afraid, frankly. Of course, the larger problem is that Donald Trump still doesn't care about intelligence briefings because they bore him
, and he has a narrative to get out, and if it means attacking his own intelligence agencies, then so be it.
The President’s Daily Brief (PDB), a document that for decades has been drawn up specifically for the commander in chief, “has become more important for Cabinet-level officials than the president,” said a former senior U.S. intelligence official who until earlier this year was involved in drafting such documents. The official, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive matters.
He has "people" for that.