President Trump, under increasing pressure from lawmakers to punish Saudi Arabia in the killing of prominent journalist-critic Jamal Khashoggi, sided Sunday with the kingdom’s de facto ruler, distancing himself from reported U.S. intelligence assessments that the crown prince had ordered the assassination.
In an interview aired on “Fox News Sunday,” Trump also said he had decided to skip listening to a “very vicious and terrible” audio recording of the Oct. 2 slaying of Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
As ever more grisly details about the writer’s death have emerged, Trump has by turns professed incuriosity and squeamishness, telling Fox interviewer Chris Wallace there was “no reason” for him to listen to the purported death tape provided by Turkish authorities to Western governments.
“It's a suffering tape, it's a terrible tape. I've been fully briefed on it, there's no reason for me to hear it," he said.
Trump also continued his steady criticism of the investigation being led by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III into Russian interference in the 2016 election, signaling that he would not object if Matthew Whitaker, his newly appointed acting attorney general, tried to rein in Mueller’s probe.
And he fired off a vulgar tweet aimed at a prominent Democrat who criticized Whitaker’s appointment, referring to Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank) as “little Adam Schitt.”
Saudi Arabia has acknowledged that its agents killed Khashoggi, and officials there have said they will seek the death penalty against five Saudis involved. But they have denied that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman had any advance knowledge of the plan.
Those denials have been widely discounted by U.S. officials as well as by other Western governments. The CIA has concluded with “high confidence” that the crown prince authorized last month’s premeditated killing of the 59-year-old writer, according to multiple news reports.
The president previously accused the Saudis of “one of the worst cover-ups” in the death of Khashoggi, a Virginia resident who wrote opinion columns for the Washington Post. But in recent days he has swung back to defending the kingdom’s rulers, suggesting that the evidence did not definitely establish the crown prince’s culpability.
"Will anybody really know?" Trump asked in the Fox News interview. He said the crown prince had personally told him “maybe five times … as recently as a few days ago,” that he played no role in the killing and that he has “many people now that say he had no knowledge.” He did not specify who those individuals were.
The Khashoggi episode, and Trump’s refusal to cast public suspicion on the crown prince, has once again spotlighted his reluctance to accept intelligence findings that conflict with his political or personal agenda.
That pattern became clear from the earliest days of his administration, when he pushed back against assessments that Russia had interfered in the 2016 presidential election.
In the Fox interview, Trump again derided Mueller’s Russia investigation. Trump said Whitaker — a loyalist he named as acting attorney general after pushing out Whitaker’s former boss, Jeff Sessions — had full authority in overseeing the Mueller probe.
If Whitaker sought to somehow curtail the special counsel, he said, “it’s going to be up to him.”
“I would not get involved,” Trump said.
In the Khashoggi case, Trump has consistently emphasized Saudi Arabia’s role as a purchaser of American weaponry, linking that to what critics say are exaggerated claims of U.S. jobs stemming from the arms sales.
The Trump administration has bet heavily on Saudi Arabia’s usefulness as a mediator in the Israel-Palestinian conflict and as an ally against Iran. The administration has cultivated tight links with the Saudis, particularly the 33-year-old crown prince.
Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, in particular, forged a personal relationship with the young king-in-waiting.
In the Fox interview, Trump again sounded the theme that the desert kingdom’s usefulness outweighed qualms about its policies and actions, including Khashoggi’s killing.
"We do have an ally, and I want to stick with an ally that in many ways has been very good," the president said. The interview aired a day after Trump promised "a very full report over the next two days” on the killing and described the CIA’s reported conclusion as premature.
But anger at the Saudis has been building on Capitol Hill, with some of the harshest criticism coming from leading Republicans. Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said Sunday of the crown prince: “I have no intention of working with him ever again.”
Graham, interviewed on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” said it was “impossible for me to believe” that the crown prince did not know in advance of the killing.
That view was echoed by Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.). “I think the evidence is overwhelming that the crown prince was involved,” Paul said on CBS’ “Face the Nation,” adding: “I don’t think we can sweep this under the rug.”
Democrats have been far more vocal from the outset in demanding accountability from the Saudis, in the form of tougher sanctions and a curtailment of arms sales and cooperation in the disastrous Yemen war that the crown prince has spearheaded.
Schiff, the senior Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said on ABC’s “This Week” that he could not discuss the briefing he received on CIA findings, but “it’s very difficult for me to conceive of the murder of a prominent journalist and critic being carried out without the crown prince’s knowledge.”
That, he said, should have major repercussions for the U.S.-Saudi relationship.
“Our friends don’t murder journalists,” said Schiff.
But at least one senior Republican suggested the intelligence findings left some room for doubt about the crown prince’s role.
Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said it was appropriate to wait and see whether Trump decides to widen economic sanctions already levied on 17 lower-ranking Saudis by punishing the prince himself.
“I think a smoking gun would certainly help, if you actually did have that specific thing that is unlikely to be out there or unlikely to be found, where someone gave a specific direction and you know that happened,” Blunt said on ABC’s “This Week.”
A dozen tumultuous days after Democrats gained control of the House of Representatives, Trump — who last week made unproven allegations of voter fraud, railed against the Mueller investigation and skipped a solemn World War I remembrance at a historic French battlefield — offered a rare expression of regret for one action: his widely criticized decision to forgo a Veterans Day commemoration at Arlington National Cemetery.
The cemetery is only a few miles from the White House, and the visit is a presidential staple.