In unusual statement disputing the CIA and filled with exclamation points, Trump backs Saudi ruler after Khashoggi killing

"Maybe he did and maybe he didn't!" the president said of whether Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman knew of the journalist's slaying.

Breaking News Emails

Get breaking news alerts and special reports. The news and stories that matter, delivered weekday mornings.
SUBSCRIBE
By Adam Edelman and F. Brinley Bruton

President Donald Trump, in exclamation point-filled formal presidential statement, said Tuesday that his administration would stand by Saudi Arabia's rulers and take no actions against them over the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

In the extraordinary statement, which featured six exclamation points from the president, Trump called the "crime" against Khashoggi "terrible" and "one that our country does not condone."

But he again stopped well short of pointing blame at Saudi Arabia — despite NBC News and other reports last week that the CIA concluded that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered Khashoggi's killing — and cast questions over who killed the journalist.

"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!" Trump said in the statement, which featured a subheading that read "America First!"

"That being said, we may never know all of the facts surrounding the murder of Mr. Jamal Khashoggi," he continued. "In any case, our relationship is with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia."

Later Tuesday, Trump told reporters that the U.S. relationship with Saudia Arabia and the fallout over Khashoggi's murder was "a shame, but it is what it is." He also said he would be willing to meet with the crown prince at next week's G-20 summit in Argentina.

"I don’t know that he’s gonna be there, but if he is, I will," Trump said.

Former CIA director John Brennan responded to Trump's statement by saying that Congress should obtain and make public the CIA's findings about Khashoggi's death.

"Since Mr. Trump excels in dishonesty, it is now up to members of Congress to obtain & declassify the CIA findings on Jamal Khashoggi's death," said Brennan, a scathing critic of Trump. "No one in Saudi Arabia most especially the Crown Prince — should escape accountability for such a heinous act."

Lawmakers from both parties, and experts, also reacted critically.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., tweeted that, "You can't just throw in some exclamations (!!!!), yell that the world is dangerous, and call it a press release. That's not how a U.S. President responds to the murder of a journalist and American resident."

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calf., said that "to allow this to happen with no consequences is offensive to every value the United States holds dear."

"Human rights is more than just a phrase, it has to mean something. And that means standing up and condemning a brazen murder by a foreign government," added Feinstein, who said she would vote against all future arms deals with the Saudis and urged sanctions against the country's rulers. "Everyone who played a role in this killing must be held accountable."

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., took a jab at Trump's "America First" justification.

"I'm pretty sure this statement is Saudi Arabia First, not America First. I'm also pretty sure John Bolton wrote it," he said on Twitter, referring to the president's national security adviser.

Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, a fellow for the Middle East at Rice University's Baker Institute and an expert on Saudi Arabia, told NBC News that Trump's statement was "one of the most extraordinary" he'd "ever seen," adding that it "bears the imprint of John Bolton."

Khashoggi, a U.S. resident from Saudi Arabia, was a Washington Post opinion contributor critical of the crown prince's regime.

His former employer also issued a scathing statement about Trump's remarks, with Washington Post Publisher and CEO Fred Ryan calling the president's response "a betrayal of long-established American values of respect for human rights and the expectation of trust and honesty in our strategic relationships."

"He is placing personal relationships and commercial interests above American interests in his desire to continue to do business as usual with the crown prince of Saudi Arabia," Ryan said.

Committee to Protect Journalists Executive Director Joel Simon added in his own statement that, "if you boil the White House statement down to its essence, President Trump has just asserted that if you do enough business with the U.S., you are free to murder journalists."

"That's an appalling message to send to Saudi Arabia and the world," he added.

Trump, speaking to reporters later Tuesday, said he had no commercial interests in Saudi Arabia.

“I don't get money from Saudi Arabia," he said. "Saudi Arabia has nothing to do with me."

The CIA's assessment had been expected to add pressure on the Trump administration to unleash further punishment on Saudi Arabia despite the president's cordial ties to the royal family there.

The latest statement seems to all but rule that out.

“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. It is our paramount goal to fully eliminate the threat of terrorism throughout the world!" Trump said in the statement.

Trump, in the statement, which was titled, "Statement from President Donald J. Trump on Standing with Saudi Arabia," also repeats unsubstantiated smears against Khashoggi that have been perpetuated by the Saudi government, including that Khashoggi was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, and spreads the Saudi government claim that Khashoggi was an “enemy of the state."

Trump has repeatedly derided the U.S. press as "the enemy of the people."

In an interview with reporters, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu responded to Trump's reference to Khashoggi asking, "Do you think the US would allow him to come here if he was a terrorist?" Cavusoglu also pointed out that the Muslim Brotherhood was not a terrorist organization and then asked, "Suppose that he is linked with the Muslim Brotherhood or another organization like this, does this mean he has to be killed like this?"

Trump, in his Tuesday statement, repeats denials from Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Saudi King Salman that they had "any knowledge of the planning or execution of the murder of Mr. Khashoggi."

The statement makes it clear there will be no additional consequences for Saudi Arabia. Trump reiterated that his administration had already announced sanctions against 17 Saudi Arabian officials over Khashoggi's killing and explained that he would not be cancelling a massive arms deal between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, despite pressure from some lawmakers to do so.

"If we foolishly cancel these contracts, Russia and China would be the enormous beneficiaries — and very happy to acquire all of this newfound business. It would be a wonderful gift to them directly from the United States!" Trump wrote.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, at a press conference held after the White House statement was released, repeated much of Trump said, telling reporters that "the United States will continue to have a relationship with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia."

"They are an important partner of ours," he said. "That is the commitment the president made today… it’s that straightforward."

"It's a mean, nasty world out there. The Middle East in particular. There are important American interests to keep the American people safe, to protect Americans," he said.

Meanwhile, in his statement, Trump used inaccurate figures to describe the arms sale. For example, he writes that the Saudis had "agreed to spend and invest $450 billion in the United States" and that of that amount, "$110 billion will be spent on the purchase of military equipment from Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon and many other great U.S. defense contractors."

But according to a study of the deal published Monday by the Center for International Policy, the deal with Saudi Arabia is actually a mixture of orders approved during the Obama administration, a few new offers, and tens of billions in speculative deals. Actual deals implemented since Trump took office total just $14.5 billion, the study found.

In addition, Trump, in the statement, essentially outlined how the U.S. needed Saudi support to help combat Iranian involvement in the war in Yemen, to help fight terrorism internationally and to help keep oil prices low.

"The world is a very dangerous place!" Trump wrote.

In closing, Trump took aim at "members of Congress who, for political or other reasons, would like to go in a different direction."

"I will consider whatever ideas are presented to me, but only if they are consistent with the absolute security and safety of America," he wrote.

He added, "America is pursuing its national interests and vigorously contesting countries that wish to do us harm. Very simply it is called America First!"

Abigail Williams contributed.