Pompeo visits Saudi Arabia, but no word on whether he'll bring up Khashoggi killing

“Take their money. Take their money, Chuck,” Trump said of the Saudis during an exclusive interview with NBC News' Chuck Todd.

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By Rachel Elbaum

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met Monday with Saudi Arabia's King Salman and the powerful crown prince in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, where they discussed "heightened tensions in the region," as friction with Iran mounted.

But there is one topic that most likely featured low on the official agenda: the killing of Washington Post writer Jamal Khashoggi, a U.S. permanent resident and vocal critic of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Last week, the United Nations extrajudicial executions investigator said there was "credible evidence" that high-level Saudi officials, including the crown prince, could be liable for Khashoggi’s killing. Last year, the CIA concluded that Mohammed bin Salman ordered Khashoggi’s killing — a claim that has been resolutely rejected by Riyadh.

During a recent exclusive interview with NBC's Chuck Todd for "Meet the Press," President Donald Trump said that in a recent phone call with the crown prince they didn’t discuss the U.N. report.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo landed in Jeddah on Monday and is expected to meet with Saudi King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.Jacquelyn Martin / AFP - Getty Images

When asked if he would act on the U.N. recommendation for the FBI to investigate, Trump told Todd on Friday, “I think it's been heavily investigated.”

He denied overlooking what Todd described as Saudi’s “bad behavior” but stressed the importance of Saudi arms purchases from the U.S., saying “that means something to me.”

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“But I'm not like a fool that says, ‘We don't want to do business with them.’ And by the way, if they don't do business with us, you know what they do? They'll do business with the Russians or with the Chinese,” Trump said.

“Take their money. Take their money, Chuck,” he told Todd.

Khashoggi’s killing last autumn and the Saudi response triggered a wave of anger around the world. Following the murder, the Trump administration faced criticism for its defense of the U.S.-Saudi relationship.

Officials in Saudi Arabia at first denied that Khashoggi had disappeared after entering the kingdom's Istanbul consulate on Oct. 2. But after a series of revelations, they eventually admitted that his murder had been premeditated and pinned the blame on a rogue team — some of whom are known to have been close to Mohammed bin Salman.

The murder tarnished the crown prince's international standing. But the kingdom is a longtime U.S. ally and the first place that Trump visited as president.

Just before departing for Jiddah on Sunday night, Pompeo called Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates “two great allies in the challenge that Iran presents.” On Monday, he tweeted that the discussions were productive and that they talked about "the need to promote maritime security in the Strait of Hormuz."

After the meetings with the king and crown prince, Pompeo departed for the United Arab Emirates.

Both countries are involved a war against Houthi rebels in Yemen that are backed by Iran.

After Khashoggi’s killing, even close Trump allies lashed out at the crown prince. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., called Mohammed bin Salman "unhinged" and refusing to work with him in the future.

In November, the U.S. announced sanctions against 17 Saudi Arabian officials over Khashoggi’s killing.

However, it has continued to deepen ties with the kingdom and has pressed ahead with arms sales despite the objection of Congress, which voted to halt U.S. support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen. Trump vetoed the legislation in April.

In May, the administration bypassed Congress and declared a national security emergency to enable it to go ahead with the sale of weapons to Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Jordan without congressional approval, according to administration letters sent to senators and obtained by NBC News.

The Trump administration also approved the transfer of sensitive nuclear technology twice after Khashoggi’s death, according to information shared with members of Congress.

Citing records provided by the Department of Energy, Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., said this month that the Trump administration had given the green light to U.S. energy firms to export technology and know-how to Saudi Arabia on Oct. 18, 2018 — only 16 days after Khashoggi was killed. The administration then approved another transfer on Feb. 18.

It’s not Pompeo’s first visit since Khashoggi's death. In January, he visited the kingdom and said that the U.S. would continue to discuss Khashoggi’s murder and would make sure “accountability is full and complete.”

Abigail Williams contributed.