Donald Trump insisted he was right not to condemn Saudi Arabian leaders for journalist Jamal Khashoggi's murder on Wednesday morning after harsh criticism of his pronouncement the day before that the crown prince may have been in the dark.
Trump held the declining price of oil, of which Saudi Arabia is the top exporter, as a reason for maintaining a positive relationship with the kingdom.
'Oil prices getting lower. Great! Like a big Tax Cut for America and the World. Enjoy! $54, was just $82,' he said. 'Thank you to Saudi Arabia, but let’s go lower!'
The president had argued the afternoon prior that Saudi Arabia could jack up the price of oil and drive up consumer costs while defending a much-maligned announcement that he would take no action at this time against the nation for Khashoggi's assassination.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman says he had nothing to do with with the death, but the CIA has confidentially assessed that couldn't plausibly be the case. It's unlikely that the de facto ruler of the kingdom was unaware of what was happening inside the consulate where Khashoggi was tortured and then murdered.
Speaking before he boarded Marine One for the first leg of a trip to Mar-a-Lago for Thanksgiving, he refused to retreat from a claim he had made in a written statement that there was no certainty bin Salman ordered the brutal killing of the dissident Washington Post columnist — and that sanctioning him and the kingdom would cost American jobs.
Russia and China would sweep in and take Saudi investments for themselves, he claimed.
He also denied he had any personal business interest in the Saudi economy, claiming that being president had cost him 'a fortune like you have never seen.'
Trump spoke after the White House issued an exclamation point-littered statement on Khashoggi's killing that went against a reported CIA assessment that it was high probable bin Salman ordered the journalist's murder.
His position entirely ignored the CIA's findings and prompted an immediate backlash from prominent senators.
But on the White House's South Lawn Trump explained: 'It is all about America first - it is America first.
'We're not going to give up hundreds of billions of dollars of orders and let Russia, China, everybody else have them,' he said.
Trump suggested that among the deals which would be at stake were investment in military equipment made by Saudi Arabia, which he claimed was part of a $400 billion investment by Saudi in the U.S.
'They're paying us 400 billion plus,' he claimed. 'That's probably the biggest amount ever paid to the United States. This is over a long period of time.'
In the past, the president has claimed a $110 billion investment from the Saudis in defense equipment that would disappear if the U.S. sanctioned the nation's military sector.
'If you think I'm going to let Russia have that money or those things, if you think I'm going to let China make the military equipment — hey, China and Russia would love to make a hundred billion dollars worth of military equipment from Saudi Arabia. We have the contracts. They wanted those contracts,' he said on Tuesday.
'That would be a big fat beautiful gift to Russia and China. They are not going to get that gift.'
He also said that he believed Saudis would send up global oil prices, which he took personal credit for keeping low.
'Saudi Arabia, if we break with them, I think your oil prices would go through the roof,' he said. 'I've kept them down. They've helped me keep them down.'
If he were to act against the kingdom, Trump suggested there would be a global economic meltdown.
'Right now we have oil prices in great shape. I'm not going to destroy the world economy, and I'm not going to destroy the economy for our country by being foolish with Saudi Arabia.'
He added, 'I think the statement was pretty obvious what I said. It's about America First.'
Trump also denied that he had any personal financial interest in Saudi Arabia, saying: 'Well I have nothing to do with Saudi — just so you understand.
'I don't make deals with Saudi Arabia. I don't have money from Saudi Arabia. I have nothing to do with Saudi Arabia. I couldn't care less,' he insisted. 'As most of you know, being president has cost me a fortune, and that's okay with me. I knew that a long time ago.'
He said the presidency has cost him more than he's profited, although he refused to say how much.
'Being president has cost me a fortune. A tremendous fortune like you've never seen before. But some day I'll tell you what that is.'
His claims came in response to the critical reception that a lengthy written statement defending Saudi Arabia had received.
Before he pardoned two Thanksgiving turkeys, Trump indicated that he wasn't convinced by the CIA's version of the events leading to Khashoggi's death.
'Our intelligence agencies continue to assess all information, but it could very well be that the Crown Prince had knowledge of this tragic event – maybe he did and maybe he didn't!' the president said.
Trump's intervention serves to prop up MBS, who is a close ally of Jared Kushner, the president's son-in-law, at a time when the top of the wider Saudi royal family is no longer united in backing him.
One of his uncles is being suggested as the next king by other family members, leaving MBS more politically exposed than he had been before the furor over the murder.
The president's was warned by two Republican senators who he sees as key allies, Lindsey Graham and Rand Paul, that he was wrong not to sanction Saudi Arabia and MBS, even though he left the option open to Congess.
Graham said it is not in U.S. national security interests to 'look the other way when it comes to the brutal murder' of Khashoggi.
The South Carolina senator said he thinks there will be strong bipartisan support in Congress for serious sanctions against Saudi Arabia and members of the royal family.
Paul also said it was a 'mistake' for Trump to continue supporting arms sales to the Saudis, saying 'it's a sign of weakness not to stand up to Saudi Arabia.'
The Kentucky senator has been trying to convince Trump to halt the $100 billion in arms sales that Trump says Saudi Arabia already committed to. Paul said Trump's position signals that Saudi Arabia can 'just behead anybody that protests against the kingdom.'
He also said selling arms is not a 'jobs program,' and the U.S. should not reward Saudi Arabia's 'bad behavior.' He claimed he has the votes in the Senate to block it.
Trump's stunning statement came hours before the president was due to depart the White House for a family holiday at Mar-a-Lago.
And it was just days after the president admitted he had not listened to an audio tape provided by the Turkish government of Khashoggi's murder, because it was too gruesome.
'It was very violent, very vicious and terrible,' Trump told told Fox News on Friday.
Turmp said then that he didn't know if MBS was lying to him when he told him that he had no knowledge of the murder.
In the interview for Fox News Sunday the president replied: 'Well, will anybody really know? All right, will anybody really know? But he did have certainly people that were reasonably close to him and close to him that were probably involved.
'You saw we put on very heavy sanctions, massive sanctions on a large group of people from Saudi Arabia. But at the same time we do have an ally and I want to stick with an ally that in many ways has been very good,' he explained.
The president on Tuesday said that he was still open to sanctions that could be imposed by Congress in the lame duck session but would only support them if they were in the United States' national security interests.
He insisted, 'The crime against Jamal Khashoggi was a terrible one, and one that our country does not condone.'
Yet, the U.S. president said he would take no further action because the United States' relationship with Saudi Arabia is too valuable.
'That being said, we may never know all of the facts surrounding the murder of Mr. Jamal Khashoggi. In any case, our relationship is with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia,' he again asserted.
His statement, sent early Tuesday afternoon, claimed, 'They have been a great ally in our very important fight against Iran. The United States intends to remain a steadfast partner of Saudi Arabia to ensure the interests of our country, Israel and all other partners in the region.'
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif fired back on Twitter.
'Mr. 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. Perhaps we're also responsible for the California fires, because we didn't help rake the forests - just like the Finns do?'
The comment was a jab at Trump's claim in an interview that wildfires could be prevented by better raking of weeds and underneath trees.
In addition to invoking Iran, Trump had contended the United States has already taken 'strong action' against the alleged perpetrators of the crime that MBS says he wasn't aware of.
'After great independent research, we now know many details of this horrible crime. We have already sanctioned 17 Saudis known to have been involved in the murder of Mr. Khashoggi, and the disposal of his body,' he said.
Members of Congress, including expected House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff, were incredulous at Trump's statement on Tuesday.
'It is true that our relationship is with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, not just its Crown Prince, and that must factor into our response. But to suggest 'maybe he did and maybe he didn't' or that we are incapable of finding out the truth, or that knowing the truth our silence can be bought with arms sales, undermines respect for the Office of the Presidency, the credibility of our intelligence community and America's standing as a champion of human rights,' Schiff responded.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, another California Democrat, said in a statement on Tuesday afternoon, 'I'm shocked that President Trump said there will be no punishment for Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for the killing of Jamal Khashoggi.'
'I plan to vote against any future arms sales and appropriation to Saudi Arabia. I also believe that the United States should consider sanctions against the crown prince and that the Saudi ambassador to the United States should not be allowed to continue in that role,' she insisted.
Trump in a rebuttal to the complaints had said in his comments that he understands if Congress wants to pursue a different course of action than he did.
'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. I will consider whatever ideas are presented to me, but only if they are consistent with the absolute security and safety of America,' he argued.
He specifically noted that Saudi Arabia is a large producer of oil.
'They have worked closely with us and have been very responsive to my requests to keeping oil prices at reasonable levels – so important for the world,' he said. 'As President of the United States I intend to ensure that, in a very dangerous world, America is pursuing its national interests and vigorously contesting countries that wish to do us harm. Very simply it is called America First!'
At the White House on Monday, the president's counselor, Kellyanne Conway had insisted that sanctions were not permanently off the table after launching a passionate defense of the president's actions so far.
She said that Trump would make a decision after reading an intelligence community report.
Vice President Mike Pence had told reporters while he was in Australia that the U.S would hold 'all of those who are responsible' for the murder accountable.
'The murder of Jamal Khashoggi was an atrocity. 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,' Pence told reporters traveling with him on Saturday.
Trump then released a puzzling statement defending the Saudis and the crown prince.
'King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman vigorously deny any knowledge of the planning or execution of the murder of Mr. Khashoggi,' he again pointed out.
It was more love than MBS was getting from inside the royal family.
Sources close to the royal court told Reuters that princes and cousins from inside the Al Saud family are asking for a change in the line of succession. They acknowledged that the 82-year-old king is unlikely to ditch his son, however.
A Washington Post report over the weekend said the U.S. had high confidence in a CIA assessment that MBS would have been knowledgeable about events happening in the kingdom he effectively rules.
The CIA's confidence level was lifted, CNN reported, after receiving an audio tape provided to the U.S. by the Turkish government earlier this month.
Khashoggi can be heard ordering his killers to release him in the audio recording of his murder, before one of the killers shouts: 'Traitor! You will be brought to account,' according to Turkish media.
The audio allegedly also includes a conversation between members of the 'hit squad' during which one of them complains about having to wear Khashoggi's clothing to act as a decoy after his murder.
Shortly after entering the consulate in Istanbul, according to Haberturk, the journalist can also be heard saying, 'Release my arm! What do you think you are doing?'
The exchange is followed by 'a verbal quarrel, noises of a physical fight and then beating and torture', the newspaper reported.
More than an hour after Khashoggi enters the consulate, a male voice can allegedly be heard saying 'it is spooky to wear the clothes of a man whom we killed 20 minutes ago.'
The 59-year-old Washington Post journalist was last seen entering the building on October 2 to obtain paperwork for his upcoming marriage to his Turkish fiancee.
According to Turkish officials, the audio recording proves that Khashoggi was strangled to death and dismembered soon after entering the consulate.
At the State Department, the nation's chief diplomat, Mike Pompeo, echoed the president at a press briefing, telling reporters, 'As the president said today, the United States will continue to have a relationship with the kingdom of Saudi Arabia.'
'This is a long, historic commitment and one that is absolutely vital to Americans' national security,' he said.
In Saudi Arabia, the Khashoggi murder has opened an opportunity to seize power from the Crown Prince.
Members of the House of Saud are seeking to find an alternative successor to the throne and prevent MBS from becoming king, sources close to the royal court said.
A preferred candidate is Prince Ahmed bin Abdulaziz, 76, younger full brother of King Salman and uncle to the crown prince.
King Salman's only surviving brother flirted with power in London in October as he appeared to distance himself from the king and crown prince over the Khashoggi murder.
Prince Ahmed was one of only three people on the Allegiance Council, made up of the ruling family's senior members, who opposed MBS becoming crown prince in 2017, two Saudi sources said at the time.
Unlike European monarchies the House of Saud is made up of hundreds of princes, with the power of succession drawn across tribal lines, rather than automatically going to the eldest son.
Each branch of the dynasty is consulted before a new king succeeds.
This article has been adapted from its original source.
© Associated Newspapers Ltd.