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Trump Reaffirms His Support For Saudi Arabia After Killing Of Journalist

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

President Trump is pledging to remain a, quote, "steadfast partner" to Saudi Arabia. In a White House statement, the president said we'd never really know whether Saudi Arabia's crown prince was responsible for the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, even though the CIA has reportedly determined that Mohammed bin Salman was personally responsible. Here's what President Trump said to reporters yesterday.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: The fact is maybe he did, maybe he didn't.

MARTIN: He was pressed on that.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Why are you siding with the Saudis over your own intelligence community?

TRUMP: Because it's America first to me. It's all about America first. We're not going to give up hundreds of billions of dollars in orders and let Russia, China and everybody else have them. It's all about, for me - very simple - it's America first.

MARTIN: We've got NPR White House correspondent Scott Horsley with us. Good morning, Scott.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: So the president said there that if we broke off ties with Saudi Arabia, oil prices would go through the roof, and he cited important U.S. business deals with Saudi Arabia that would fall through. Are those true claims?

HORSLEY: Partially true, Rachel. You know, what's unusual is how blunt the president is in expressing his foreign policy in transactional terms. Obviously, for any president, oil prices and arms sales are a consideration. But President Trump puts those front and center in his calculation. Now, we should say he wildly exaggerates the value to the United States of those arms purchases by Saudi Arabia, and he also ignores in talking about oil prices that his administration has been working to take Iranian oil off the market, which is one reason they're concerned that the Saudis make up the difference. More broadly, the Trump administration has placed a big strategic bet on Saudi Arabia and its volatile crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman. And the president is simply unwilling to upset that strategy to make a statement that you shouldn't go around killing U.S.-based journalists.

MARTIN: An individual briefed on the matter tells NPR that the CIA believes that it's likely that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman did personally approve of Khashoggi's killing. I mean, the president must be aware of the CIA's assessment, right?

HORSLEY: Certainly. The president was briefed by CIA Director Gina Haspel over the weekend. It has been seven weeks now since Jamal Khashoggi was killed. And throughout that time, the president has sort of bent over backwards to make excuses for the Saudi government. He has given them all sorts of time to concoct and then revise their explanations of what has happened. The U.S. and the Trump administration have sanctioned some individual Saudis, but the president has resisted targeting the Saudi royal family.

MARTIN: I mean, we should point out, previous American administrations have made a lot of allowances for the Saudi regime for many years. But this this is such an overt dismissal of what the CIA is saying. At least, it appears to be.

HORSLEY: Well, that's right and, of course, the president talks about what the cost would be for punishing the Saudis here. We should say that there are costs on the other side as well. There's a cost to the president for, once again, challenging the finding of his own intelligence agency. There is a tremendous humanitarian cost in Yemen for the U.S. siding with the Saudis in their brutal proxy war there. And there's also, critics would say, a cost to U.S. moral authority in, you know, turning a blind eye to the killing of a journalist for the sake of some arms sales and cheap oil.

MARTIN: I mean, even the president's allies are saying that, right? Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican, one of the president's closest allies in Congress, is saying as much.

HORSLEY: That's right. Lindsey Graham, who has been a staunch ally of this president, put out a statement saying it's not in our national security interests to look the other way when it comes to what he called the brutal murder of Jamal Khashoggi. He said - Graham said, I fully realize we have to deal with bad actors and imperfect situations on the international stage, but when we lose our moral voice, we lose our strongest asset. There was also a statement yesterday from Senator Bob Corker, the Republican chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee. He said, I never thought I'd see a day when the White House would moonlight as a public relations firm for the crown prince of Saudi Arabia.

MARTIN: Worth pointing out that Bob Corker resigning, so maybe feeling a little freer to criticize the president in this moment. President Trump pointed out that the administration has already sanctioned 17 Saudis who are known to have been involved in the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. Can we expect more action out of Congress in addition?

HORSLEY: It's certainly possible. Senator Graham said he believes there is a bipartisan appetite for additional sanctions against Saudi Arabia, including members of the Saudi royal family. It's not entirely clear what shape those sanctions might take. The president did say yesterday that he would be willing to entertain additional punitive measures against the Saudis, but he also said he would go along only if he thought those were in the national interests of the United States.

MARTIN: NPR White House correspondent Scott Horsley for us this morning. Thanks so much, Scott.

HORSLEY: Good to be with you, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.