Trump thanks Saudis after defying calls to punish prince
Deb Riechmann, The Associated Press
Published Wednesday, November 21, 2018 1:24AM EST
Last Updated Wednesday, November 21, 2018 10:07AM EST
WASHINGTON -- U.S. President Donald Trump publicly thanked Saudi Arabia for plunging oil prices just a day after he was harshly criticized for deciding not to further punish the kingdom for the killing of U.S.-based columnist Jamal Khashoggi.
Trump, who made clear in an exclamation-filled statement on Tuesday that he feels that the benefits of good relations with the kingdom outweigh the possibility its crown prince ordered the killing, tweeted on Wednesday that it's "Great!" that oil prices are falling.
"Thank you to Saudi Arabia, but let's go lower!" he wrote from his Mar-a-Lago club in Palm Beach, Florida, where he's spending Thanksgiving.
The international crude benchmark has fallen under $65 per barrel from a four-year high of more than $86 in early October as the U.S., Saudi Arabia and Russia have stepped up output. However, OPEC, the cartel of oil-producing countries, could announce production cuts at its Dec. 6 meeting in Vienna, nudging prices upward.
The president on Tuesday condemned the brutal slaying of Khashoggi, a Saudi columnist for The Washington Post who had criticized the royal family. Trump described the brutal slaying of Khashoggi inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul as a "horrible crime ... that our country does not condone." But he rejected calls by many in Congress, including members of his own party, for a tougher response, and he dismissed reports from U.S. intelligence agencies that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman must have at least known about such an audacious and intricate plot.
"It could very well be that the crown prince had knowledge of this tragic event," the president said. "Maybe he did and maybe he didn't!"
The statement captured Trump's view of the world and foreign policy, grounded in economic necessity. It began with the words "America First!" followed by "The world is a very dangerous place!"
The U.S. earlier sanctioned 17 Saudi officials suspected of being responsible for or complicit in the Oct. 2 killing, but members of Congress have called for harsher actions, including cancelling arms sales.
Trump said "foolishly cancelling these contracts" worth billions of dollars would only benefit Russia and China, which would be next in line to supply the weapons. Critics, including high-ranking officials in other countries, denounced Trump's statement, saying he ignored human rights and granted Saudi Arabia a pass for economic reasons.
Asked by a reporter if he was saying that human rights are too expensive to fight for, Trump responded, "No, I'm not saying that at all." But he preferred to focus on Iran rather than any actions by Saudi Arabia. The U.S. needs a "counterbalance" to Iran, "and Israel needs help, too," he said. "If we abandon Saudi Arabia, it would be a terrible mistake."
Trump was roundly criticized by Democrats, but some Republicans weighed in against him, too.
Sen. Rand Paul. R-Ky., said the Trump administration has "blinders on" in comparing Iran and Saudi Arabia and said Trump showed weakness in not standing up to Saudi Arabia.
Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, tweeted: "I never thought I'd see the day a White House would moonlight as a public relations firm for the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia."
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who is close to Trump, also disagreed with the president's decision, saying America must not lose its "moral voice" on the international stage.
"It is not in our national security interests to look the other way when it comes to the brutal murder of Mr. Jamal Khashoggi," Graham said.
Iran's foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, mocked Trump's announcement, tweeting that Trump "bizarrely devotes the FIRST paragraph of his shameful statement on Saudi atrocities to accuse IRAN of every sort of malfeasance he can think of."
Zarif went on to joke that "perhaps we're also responsible for the California fires, because we didn't help rake the forests-- just like the Finns do?" He appeared to be referring to recent remarks in which Trump suggested raking the forest floor prevented fires in Finland and would have helped to prevent California's devastating wildfires.
Mevlut Cavusoglu, the foreign minister of Turkey, where the killing occurred, said Khashoggi's death should not be covered up for the sake of maintaining trade ties with Saudi Arabia.
"It concerns a murder," Cavusoglu said. "It is not possible to say, 'Our trade will increase. Let's cover this up. Let's ignore it."'
Saudi prosecutors have said a 15-man team sent to Istanbul killed Khashoggi with tranquilizers and then dismembered his body, which has not been found. Those findings came after Saudi authorities spent weeks denying Khashoggi had been killed in the consulate.
Trump said King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed "vigorously deny" any knowledge of the planning or execution of the killing. He also said the CIA has not made a conclusive determination about whether the crown prince ordered it.
A U.S. official familiar with the case told The Associated Press last week that intelligence officials had concluded that the crown prince, the kingdom's de facto leader, did order the killing. Others familiar with the case, however, have cautioned that while it's likely the crown prince had a role, there continue to be questions about the degree.
"We may never know all of the facts surrounding the murder of Mr. Jamal Khashoggi," Trump said. "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 he knew some members of Congress would disagree with his decision. He said he would listen to their ideas, but only if they were focused on U.S. national security.
Late last week, a bipartisan group of senators introduced legislation that calls for the suspension of weapons sales to Saudi Arabia, for sanctions on people who block humanitarian access in Yemen or support the Houthi rebels and for mandatory sanctions on those responsible for Khashoggi's death.
Democrats harshly criticized Trump's decision Tuesday and called on Congress to cut off arms sales to Saudi Arabia and end support for Saudi Arabia's war against the Iran-backed Houthi rebels in neighbouring Yemen, which is facing a humanitarian crisis.
"Standing with Saudi Arabia is not 'America First!"' said Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia, where Khashoggi lived. "President Trump has sided with a murderous regime over patriotic American intelligence officials."
Democrat Dianne Feinstein of California, a member of the Senate intelligence committee, said Khashoggi was killed by agents of the Saudi government in a "premeditated murder, plain and simple," and she said she would introduce legislation requiring intelligence agencies to release an unclassified public assessment.