Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, center left, shakes hands with U.S. President Donald Trump, center right, during a meeting in the Oval Office. (Photographer: Kevin Dietsch/Pool via Bloomberg)

Trump Says U.S. to Stand by Saudis Despite Khashoggi Killing

(Bloomberg) -- President Donald Trump said he won’t let the murder of U.S-based columnist Jamal Khashoggi jeopardize relations with Saudi Arabia, citing the potential impact on oil prices and Iranian influence in the Middle East.

Trump Says U.S. to Stand by Saudis Despite Khashoggi Killing

In an unconventional statement on Tuesday headlined “America First!” Trump said he would stand by Saudi Arabia regardless of whether Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered Khashoggi’s death. The kingdom’s strategic importance, he argued, outweighs the “horrible crime” perpetrated against Khashoggi, a writer for the Washington Post and a critic of the crown prince.

“If we broke with them, I think your oil prices would go through the roof,” Trump told reporters later Tuesday as he left the White House to spend Thanksgiving in Florida. He added that given the U.S. interests at stake, “It’s a very simple equation for me.”

Trump Says U.S. to Stand by Saudis Despite Khashoggi Killing

Trump faced swift backlash from Republican and Democratic lawmakers, who have for weeks decried the murder and the crown prince’s alleged role. The statement -- Trump’s most steadfast pledge to Saudi Arabia yet -- sets the stage for a protracted fight with Congress, which could take steps on its own, including sanctions, to punish the kingdom.

Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker and the panel’s ranking Democrat, Bob Menendez, invoked a human rights-related law to require a formal U.S. determination addressing whether the prince is responsible for the murder. Such a determination could trigger additional sanctions.

Republican Senator Lindsey Graham denounced Trump’s decision. “While Saudi Arabia is a strategic ally, the behavior of the crown prince - in multiple ways - has shown disrespect for the relationship and made him, in my view, beyond toxic.” He added, “when we lose our moral voice, we lose our strongest asset.”

Trump Says U.S. to Stand by Saudis Despite Khashoggi Killing

GOP 2012 presidential nominee Mitt Romney, Utah’s senator-elect, said Trump’s statement is “inconsistent” with “American greatness.” Republican Senator Marco Rubio of Florida tweeted, “It is in our natl interest to defend human rights.”

Trump suggested that he would oppose efforts by Congress to impose additional punishment on the kingdom after his administration sanctioned 17 individuals alleged to have participated in the murder.

“I understand there are members of Congress who, for political or other reasons, would like to go in a different direction -- and they are free to do so,” he said in the statement. “I will consider whatever ideas are presented to me, but only if they are consistent with the absolute security and safety of America.”

Trump Says U.S. to Stand by Saudis Despite Khashoggi Killing

Trump, who made his first foreign trip as president to Riyadh, has forged a close relationship with Prince Mohammed, largely orchestrated by his son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner. Trump said he would meet with the crown prince if he attends the Group of 20 summit in Argentina later in the month, though he isn’t sure whether Prince Mohammed plans to attend.

“The world is a very dangerous place!” Trump said in a 635-word statement, punctuated with eight exclamation points. “It could very well be that the Crown Prince had knowledge of this tragic event – maybe he did and maybe he didn’t! That being said, we may never know all of the facts surrounding the murder of Mr. Jamal Khashoggi.”

Democratic members of Congress added to the criticism. Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon said Trump “makes clear that he does not care who ordered the brutal murder” and showed “subservience to the leaders of an authoritarian and murderous monarchy.” Senator Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire said “Trump’s habit of siding with murderous foreign dictators over American intelligence professionals is a stain on our democracy.”

Several news organizations including the Washington Post and New York Times reported last week that the CIA concluded the crown prince ordered Khashoggi’s murder at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul last month, contradicting the kingdom’s claim he wasn’t involved. CIA officials have high confidence in their conclusion, which is based on multiple sources of intelligence, the Post reported.

Trump said on Saturday that the U.S. would issue a “very full report” on the killing by Tuesday, following the media reports on the CIA findings.

But on Tuesday, Trump told reporters the CIA has “nothing definitive” to prove the crown prince ordered the murder.

Trump’s comments contrasted with the stance he struck in a CBS “60 Minutes” interview aired Oct. 14. Asked then whether the prince ordered the killing, Trump responded, “We’ll probably be able to find out” and “we would be very upset and angry if that were the case.”

Trump’s statement made no mention of Khashoggi’s role as a journalist for the Washington Post, or the importance of protecting the freedom of the press.

Trump Says U.S. to Stand by Saudis Despite Khashoggi Killing

His remarks differed from the message sent by Vice President Mike Pence during his recent trip to Asia, where he talked about the importance of a free press--and repeatedly talked about Khashoggi’s death in that context.

“The murder of Jamal Khashoggi was an atrocity,” Pence told reporters Saturday in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea. “It was also an affront to a free and independent press and the United States is determined to hold all of those accountable who are responsible for that murder.”

Trump said in his Tuesday statement the U.S. “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!”

In addition to the kingdom’s help combating “Radical Islamic Terrorism,” Trump cited purchases of U.S. weaponry and other U.S. investment that he pegged at $450 billion -- a disputed figure -- and said “they have been very responsive to my requests to keeping oil prices at reasonable levels.”

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