President Trump on Thursday flatly opposed halting U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia in response to a diplomatic furor over a journalist who disappeared after entering the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, saying a cutoff would only invite China and Russia to sell weapons to the Saudis instead.
Trump’s foreign policy in the Middle East relies heavily on close military ties with Saudi Arabia, and the growing global attention to the plight of Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi-born U.S. resident and a prominent critic of the Saudi royal family, threatens to disrupt the administration’s regional aims.
Saudi Arabia has vehemently denied Turkish reports that a 15-member security team killed Khashoggi inside the consulate in Istanbul and then flew his dismembered body out of the country. The Washington Post reported that U.S. intelligence intercepts indicate the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, personally approved an operation to lure Khashoggi from his home in Virginia to detain him.
Saudi officials have insisted that Khashoggi left the consulate shortly after he arrived last week but has offered no evidence. He does not appear leaving the diplomatic office in any of the surveillance video released so far.
Speaking to reporters in the Oval Office, Trump expressed concern about Khashoggi’s disappearance, but he refused to distance himself from his closest ally in the Arab world.
“That would not be acceptable to me,” Trump replied after reporters asked whether he would halt arms sales if the government in Riyadh were implicated in killing or kidnapping Khashoggi.
“What happened is a terrible thing, assuming that happened,” the president said. Trump said Khashoggi’s status as a U.S. resident, and not a U.S. citizen, weighed against suspending arms sales that have been lucrative for the American defense industry.
"This took place in Turkey, and to the best of our knowledge Khashoggi is not a U.S. citizen,” he said. “As to whether we should stop $110 billion from being spent in this country — that would not be acceptable to me."
Trump was given a sumptuous welcome in Riyadh in May 2017, his first stop on his first foreign trip as president last year, and his administration has worked closely with the crown prince in efforts to support Israel and to isolate Iran, Saudi Arabia’s traditional rival, as part of a still-unrealized Middle East realignment.
After the trip, analysts said Trump’s boasts of $110 billion in newly struck arms deals was misleading because it represented letters of interest and not actual contracts.
On Capitol Hill, a growing number of lawmakers called for a drastic reassessment of U.S. ties with the kingdom if the Saudi government is found responsible for Khashoggi’s disappearance or death.
A day after the Senate Foreign Relations Committee asked Trump to order an investigation and to impose sanctions if Saudi officials were culpable, Democrats and Republicans called for punitive steps against the kingdom, the world’s largest oil exporter and one of the biggest overseas markets for sophisticated U.S. weaponry.
Sen. Christopher S. Murphy (D-Conn.), a sharp critic of U.S. support for Saudi airstrikes in Yemen that have killed thousands of civilians, demanded at least a temporary halt to that aid. He condemned Saudi actions in Yemen and in the Khashoggi case as those of a “rogue state.”
Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), who chairs the Foreign Relations Committee, told CNN on Thursday that U.S. intelligence “points directly” to the Saudis for Khashoggi’s disappearance.
As the mystery deepened, the relationship between Trump’s son-in-law and senior advisor, Jared Kushner, and the Saudi crown prince has come under scrutiny. The White House and the State Department said Kushner spoke by phone with Prince Mohammed this week, as did John Bolton, Trump’s national security advisor.
Kushner, the White House point man on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, forged a personal rapport with the crown prince as the Trump administration sought Saudi help in advancing a Middle East peace plan.
However, no plan has been produced, and acrimony erupted in much of the Arab world after Trump decided last December to recognize the contested city of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and move the U.S. Embassy there from Tel Aviv.
Turkey, a NATO ally, appeared to be losing hope that the Trump administration would seek to hold Saudi Arabia to account. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has not directly accused the Saudis, but has demanded proof Khashoggi left the consulate unharmed, as the Saudis say he did.
At Riyadh’s request, Turkey and Saudi Arabia agreed to set up a "joint working group" to look into Khashoggi’s disappearance, a Turkish presidential aide, Ibrahim Kalin, told the state-run Anadolu news agency on Thursday.
That marked an apparent concession by Turkey, which previously had sought independent access to the diplomatic compound for its investigators.
Erdogan earlier had scoffed at assertions by Saudi officials that the consulate’s surveillance cameras provided live pictures but did not record video of Khashoggi’s purported exit.
“Is it possible for there to be no camera systems at the Saudi Arabia Consulate?” the Hurriyet newspaper on Thursday quoted Erdogan as saying. “If a bird flew, or a fly or a mosquito appeared, the systems would record this.”
Earlier, in an interview with “Fox and Friends,” Trump said the United States was assisting in the investigation.
“We're being very tough, and we have investigators over there, and we're working with Turkey and, frankly, we're working with Saudi Arabia,” he said. “We want to find out what happened.”
The president described relations with Saudi Arabia as “excellent,” but said one major change was needed: The Saudi government, he said, should be paying “billions and billions” for U.S. military protection.
“There would be no Saudi Arabia if there wasn't a United States, because we've protected them,” Trump said. “And we don't get paid for this protection. We should be paid.”