President Trump on Tuesday said he was unsure whether Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman knew about the murder of writer Jamal Khashoggi.
“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 said in a lengthy statement.
Trump’s statement appeared to indicate he does not wish to take action against the Saudi government in response to the killing of Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist, inside the Saudi Consulate in Turkey in October.
The statement comes as the administration prepares to release a report into Khashoggi’s death. A U.S. official told The Associated Press that intelligence officials have concluded that bin Salman ordered the killing.
“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 said. “The United States intends to remain a steadfast partner of Saudi Arabia to ensure the interests of our country, Israel and all other partners in the region. It is our paramount goal to fully eliminate the threat of terrorism throughout the world!”
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo echoed Trump's remarks at a press conference Tuesday afternoon, where he said "it's a mean, nasty world out there."
"It is the president's obligation, and indeed the State Department's duty as well, to ensure that we adopt policies that further America's national security," he said.
Trump has been hesitant in calling for action against the Saudi government, citing in particular the damage it could do to the U.S. if the relationship with the kingdom is damaged. In his statement, he said that Saudi Arabia has agreed to spend billions of dollars fighting Islamic terrorism, and that the Saudis have agreed to invest $450 billion in the United States: "This is a record amount of money," he said.
"If we foolishly cancel these contracts, Russia and China would be the enormous beneficiaries - and very happy to acquire all of this newfound business. It would be a wonderful gift to them directly from the United States!" he said.
The Treasury announced last Thursday that it was slapping sanctions on 17 Saudi government officials, who it says were part of the planning and execution of the operation that led to Khashoggi’s death. The sanctions mean that any property or interests in property of the officials in the U.S. are blocked, while Americans are prohibited from engaging in transactions with them.
"The crime against Jamal Khashoggi was a terrible one, and one that our country does not condone. Indeed, we have taken strong action against those already known to have participated in the murder," Trump's statement said, citing the sanctions.
The sanctions are in addition to travel bans placed on the same officials. Members of Congress have called for further action.
Trump said in his statement Tuesday that while he understands that members of Congress may “like to go in a different direction” he said that he would only proceed if ideas “are consistent with the absolute security and safety of America.”
“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,” he said. “Very simply it is called America First!”
The Saudis say they have 21 people in custody, and the country's top prosecutor said he would seek the death penalty for five of them. Earlier Thursday, Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman had nothing to do with Khashoggi's death.
"Absolutely, his royal highness the crown prince has nothing to do with this issue," he told reporters.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.