President Donald Trump again broke with U.S. intelligence Tuesday, this time siding with senior Saudi leaders and their denials they ordered the killing of a Washington Post journalist.
It came in a most unusual written statement from the White House, issued as the press corps on duty ahead of Thanksgiving gathered in the Rose Garden for the generally light-hearted turkey pardoning.
“King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman vigorously deny any knowledge of the planning or execution of the murder of Mr. Khashoggi,” Trump said in a White House statement that began with these unusual lines: “America First!” and “The world is a very dangerous place!”
Trump himself often uses those lines.
The consensus has been that Jamal Khashoggi was murdered inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, and it has been reported the CIA concluded Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman is to blame for the murder. Trump, however, is personally leaving it open to speculation.
“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, essentially absolving the Saudi leaders of any blame.
He acknowledged members of Congress want to enact tough penalties on the Saudi government, and said he would listen to ideas, but he did not announce any additional action he will take now.
“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. They have been a great ally in our very important fight against Iran,” Trump said.
Trump revealed the Saudi leaders used a phrase he employs in his battle with American media outlets in describing their view of Khashoggi.
“Representatives of Saudi Arabia say that Jamal Khashoggi was an ‘enemy of the state’ and a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, but my decision is in no way based on that — this is an unacceptable and horrible crime,” the President said.
The president also issued caveats for any legislation both chambers might send him to punish the Saudis.
“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,” Trump said. “I will consider whatever ideas are presented to me, but only if they are consistent with the absolute security and safety of America.”
That also seems to mean that even if lawmakers were to make a move as part of a broader piece of legislation, he might decide to use authorities as commander-in-chief to basically ignore them perhaps through a signing statement.
House Oversight and Government Reform Committee member Carolyn B. Maloney, D-N.Y., ripped the president soon after he announced his decision to believe the senior Saudis.
“President Trump’s refusal to accept the CIA’s assessment that MBS not only knew about but ORDERED the assassination of #Khashoggi is a betrayal of the American intelligence community and yet another clear indicator of his disdain for freedom of the press,” she tweeted.
That panel is among those expected to most aggressively investigate Trump and his administration once Democrats take control of the chamber in January.
Niels Lesniewski contributed to this report.