US President Donald Trump has rebuked the findings of his own intelligence agency who last week concluded Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered the murder of a Washington Post columnist.
The Central Intelligence Agency concluded with “with high confidence” that Saudi Arabia’s crown prince ordered the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, saying the October 2 murder could not have occurred without his knowledge and approval.
But Mr Trump undermined those findings on Friday (Thursday local time]), telling reporters at his Mar-a-Lago resort the intelligence agency simply “had feelings” on the matter before suggesting “the world” should be held responsible for Khashoggi’s death because it is a “vicious place”.
The president then doubled-down on his comments, suggesting an oil deal with Saudi Arabia was far more important than holding anyone accountable for Khashoggi’s murder.
“Do people really want me to give up hundreds of thousands of jobs?” Mr Trump said of his partnership with Prince Mohammed, 33, who is effectively the kingdom’s day-to-day ruler.
“And frankly, if we went by this standard, we wouldn’t be able to have anybody as an ally,” he added, before claiming the crown prince “hates it more than I do” that the assassination took place.
Mr Trump has repeatedly stressed the importance of the United States’ relationship with Saudi Arabia following Khashoggi’s death, calling the kingdom a “steadfast partner” that has agreed to invest “a record amount of money” in the US.
Saudi Arabia has repeatedly insisted the killing was a “rogue operation” carried out by an intelligence officer.
Khashoggi was for decades close to the Saudi royal family as an advisor, but he fell out of favour with the family and sought exile in the United States where he wrote regular opinion pieces for The Washington Post criticising the policies of the crown prince.
The assassination comes in the middle of a nuclear deal between Saudi Arabia and the United States estimated to be worth as much as $80 billion.
Prince Mohammed had been overseeing a negotiation with the US Energy Department and the State Department to get the United States to sell designs for nuclear power plants.
But Washington officials worried the nuclear fuel would be diverted to produce weapons. Saudi Arabia also refused to sign a deal with would allow United Nations inspectors to look anywhere in the country for signs it was making nuclear weapons.
If America were to supply the designs and design the reactor, it would create jobs – tying into Mr Trump’s comments on Thursday about jobs being more important that Mr Khashoggi’s death.
In a scathing opinion piece on Thursday, Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson blasted the US president as “a clueless clown” and suggested Mr Trump would overlook an act such as murder in exchange for purchasing American-made goods.
“In Riyadh, they must be laughing at President Trump. In Pyongyang, too, and in Tehran. In Beijing and, of course, in Moscow, they must be laughing until it hurts,” Robinson wrote. “They look at Washington and they don’t see a champion of freedom and human rights. They see a preening, clueless clown.”
“Trump’s reaction – or non-reaction – to the Saudi regime’s brutal killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi is a holiday-season gift to autocrats around the globe.
“It shows them that if you just shower Trump with over-the-top flattery, feed him some geopolitical mumbo jumbo and make vague promises to perhaps buy some American-made goods in the future, he will literally let you get away with murder.”
Ebony Bowden contributed reporting from New York City.