President Trump on Tuesday issued a bizarre statement on the killing of Washington Post columnist and Saudi Arabian political dissident Jamal Khashoggi, who was assassinated after entering his country’s consulate in Istanbul in October, suggesting he would take no further punitive actions against the Saudi government over Khashoggi’s death.
Trump, who has waffled publicly on the issue, declining to place blame directly on the Saudi Arabian government for the killing, expressed similar sentiments Tuesday, claiming Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MBS) — accused of ordering the hit on Khashoggi — may or may not have been involved.
“The crime against Jamal Khashoggi was a terrible one, and one that our country does not condone,” Trump said in a statement, which was marked with several exclamation points. “Indeed, we have taken strong action against those already known to have participated in the murder. … We have already sanctioned 17 Saudis known to have been involved in the murder of Mr. Khashoggi, and the disposal of his body.”
The Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) indeed leveled sanctions on 17 Saudi Arabian individuals involved in Khashoggi’s killing and dismemberment on consulate grounds, including Consul General Mohammed Alotaibi, who oversaw the operation, and Saud al-Qahtani, a former senior aide to MBS. However the administration has steered clear of implicating MBS himself in the crime, despite the CIA’s own assessment that the crown prince directly ordered the assassination, and evidence that supports that conclusion.
In his statement Tuesday, Trump appeared to downplay that assessment, citing the Saudi government’s own claims that Khashoggi was an “enemy of the state.”
“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 — this is an unacceptable and horrible crime,” he said. “King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman vigorously deny any knowledge of the planning or execution of the murder of Mr. Khashoggi. 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 then claimed the world “may never know all of the facts” surrounding Khashoggi’s murder, adding, “In any case, our relationship is with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.”
The rest of Trump’s statement was a mixture of accusations against Iran for drawing Saudi Arabia into a brutal war — and even more devastating humanitarian crisis — in Yemen, and overly gracious language thanking the Saudis for purchasing hundreds of billions in American-made military equipment and investing in the United States.
“After the United States, Saudi Arabia is the largest oil producing nation in the world,” he said. “They have worked closely with us and have been very responsive to my requests to keeping oil prices at reasonable levels — so important for the world. As President of the United States I intend to ensure that, in a very dangerous world, America is pursuing its national interests and vigorously contesting countries that wish to do us harm. Very simply it is called America First!”
On Sunday, the president acknowledged there is an audio recording of Khashoggi’s murder, but he said he didn’t want to listen to it.
Trump has previously excused his administration’s tepid response to Khashoggi’s killing by pointing to Saudi Arabia’s supposed $450 billion investment in the United States.
In October, the president told a group of reporters he would not consider cancelling the Saudis’ $110 billion military equipment purchase because he did not want to jeopardize the two countries’ economic partnership. “Saudi Arabia has been a great ally of ours. That’s why this is so sad,” he said.
Several outlets have since noted those figures are largely misleading, with U.S. Naval War College professor Jonathan Caverley telling Politifact last month, “The $110 billion is not even remotely solid. The State Department only counts $14.5 billion in implemented’ sales from this deal.”
Others have similarly suggested the $450 billion figure was mostly made up.
The president, by contrast, has benefited personally from his friendly relationship with Saudi Arabia. The Washington Post noted Saudi officials spent hundreds of thousands at Trump’s namesake hotel in Washington, D.C. in 2017 alone, and in July 2015, Trump himself admitted on the campaign trail that his businesses had received millions from the country over the years.
“They buy all sorts of my stuff,” he said. “All kinds of toys from Trump. They pay me millions and hundreds of millions.”