World

Trump says U.S. won't punish Saudis for role in Khashoggi killing

U.S. President Donald Trump says the United States intends to remain a "steadfast partner" of Saudi Arabia even though "it could very well be" that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman had knowledge of the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Canada's foreign affairs minister says country 'does not consider the Khashoggi affair to be closed'

In a statement Tuesday, U.S. President Donald Trump called the murder of dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi a 'horrible crime,' but said Saudi Arabia will remain a staunch American ally, noting 'we may never know all the facts surrounding' Khashoggi's death. (Ali Haider/EPA-EFE)

Donald Trump said Tuesday the United States will not punish Saudi Arabia for its role in the killing of dissident columnist Jamal Khashoggi and will continue supplying arms to its long-time Middle East partner.

The U.S. president called the killing of Khashoggi inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul a "horrible crime" that Washington does not condone, but said Saudi Arabia is a "great ally" and cancelling billions in weapons sales would only benefit China and Russia, which would be glad to step in and make the sales.

Trump's decision, announced in a statement released just before he left for the long Thanksgiving weekend in Florida, will disappoint and anger critics who have called for a much firmer rebuke to the kingdom and its de facto leader Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

U.S. intelligence officials have concluded that Prince Mohammed ordered the Oct. 2 killing, according to a U.S. official familiar with the assessment. Others familiar with the case caution that while it's likely that the crown prince had a role in the death there continue to be questions about the degree to which he was involved.

But Trump said Tuesday in his statement that both Saudi Arabia's king and crown prince "vigorously deny" any knowledge of the planning or execution of the killing of Khashoggi, who wrote for the Washington Post, among other news outlets. 

'Maybe he did and maybe he didn't'

"Our 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!" Trump said.

"That being said, we may never know all of the facts surrounding the murder of Mr. Jamal Khashoggi. 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."

Trump noted the United States intends to remain a steadfast partner of Saudi Arabia to ensure the interests of the United States.

"If we abandoned Saudi Arabia, it would be a terrible mistake," Trump later told reporters outside the White House.

The U.S. earlier sanctioned 17 Saudi officials suspected of being responsible for or complicit in the killing, but members of Congress have called for harsher actions.

Following the statement, Secretary of State Mike​ Pompeo defended Trump's continued support of Saudi Arabia and said ​the U.S. was obligated to adopt policies that furthered U.S. national security interests.

"It is the president's obligation, indeed the State Department's duty as well, to ensure that we adopt policies that further America's national security,"  Pompeo told a news conference in Washington.

Possible Canadian sanctions?

In Canada, Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland said Wednesday that despite Trump's comments in solidarity with Saudi Arabia, "Canada very much does not consider the Khashoggi affair to be closed."

"The explanations which we have received to date from Saudi Arabia lack both credibility and coherence," Freeland said, adding that Canadian officials remain in discussions with their American counterparts over the latest U.S. sanctions.

"It is very clearly Canada's position that those responsible for this horrendous murder must face full responsibility for it," Freeland said.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Saudi officials have repeatedly denied the kingdom's de facto leader was involved in Khashoggi's death, despite reports U.S. intelligence officials concluded he had knowledge of the killing. (Amir Levy/Reuters)

In a statement, Washington Post publisher Fred Ryan said, "It now falls to Congress to stand up for America's true values and lasting interests."

Last week, a bipartisan group of senators introduced legislation that calls for:

  • Suspending weapons sales to Saudi Arabia.
  • Sanctions on people who block humanitarian access in Yemen or support the Houthi rebels.
  • Mandatory sanctions on those responsible for Khashoggi's death.

Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic leader in the U.S. House of Representatives, said Tuesday she wouldn't vote for any future U.S. arms sales or appropriations involving Saudi Arabia. Other Democrats, including Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois and Rep. Adam Schiff of California accused the president of ignoring U.S. intelligence agencies and undermining American values.

Republican lawmakers also called on the Trump administration to do more. Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a Trump ally, said there would be strong bipartisan support in Congress for serious sanctions against Saudi Arabia, "including appropriate members of the royal family."

Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky said "selling arms is not a jobs program," while Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee accused the White House of becoming a "public relations firm for the crown prince of Saudi Arabia."

Late Tuesday, Corker and New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez, the top Republican and Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, wrote to Trump demanding that his administration "make a determination" on whether Prince Mohammed was involved in the killing.

France's top diplomat said Monday that his country was mulling sanctions against Saudi Arabia. And Germany on Monday announced that it has banned 18 Saudi nationals from entering Europe's border-free Schengen zone because of their suspected connections to the killing.

Trump's statement noted certain members of Congress will disagree with his decision, but said he would only listen to their ideas if they focused on U.S. national security. (Leah Millis/Reuters)

German officials, who earlier banned new weapons exports to Riyadh, also said they were halting previously approved arms exports.

Some foreign policy experts have not only recommended tougher punitive measures against Saudi Arabia, but have advocated for a complete reset on relations with Riyadh.

Corrections

  • An earlier version of this story stated that Sen. Rand Paul is from Pennsylvania. He is the junior senator from Kentucky.
    Nov 20, 2018 9:30 PM ET

With files from Reuters and CBC News

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