Days after a United Nations expert called for further investigation of Saudi Arabian officials' involvement in the assassination of Washington Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi, President Donald Trump declined to say whether he would take any action in holding the country's leadership responsible and asserted that it was in the United States' best interest to "take their money."
In a Sunday interview on Meet the Press, Trump revealed that he recently had "a great conversation" with Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in which he did not raise the issue of the U.N. report or Khashoggi's October killing.
"I think it's been heavily investigated," Trump said, when asked by host Chuck Todd whether he'd order the FBI to open an investigation, as recommended by the U.N. "I've seen so many different reports."
It was the latest instance of Trump prioritizing strategic and financial interest in the kingdom over the assessment of the intelligence community and concerns from his own party, who hold Mohammed primarily responsible for the murder of the prominent dissident.
While the U.N. investigator Agnes Callamard did not find an explicit "smoking gun" incriminating the crown prince, her report states that "every expert consulted finds it inconceivable that an operation of this scale could be implemented without the Crown Prince being aware, at a minimum, that some sort of mission of a criminal nature, directed at Mr. Khashoggi, was being launched."
"Mr. Khashoggi's killing constituted an extrajudicial killing for which the State of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is responsible," the report stated.
The CIA concluded in November that Mohammed had ordered Khashoggi's brutal assassination, and the president has faced pressure from politicians and activists who wish to see the kingdom punished for the journalist's slaying. But Trump's relationship with the crown prince has endured to the concern of Democrats and some Republicans - including the president's close ally Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.
Soon after the CIA revealed those findings, Trump issued a statement that his administration was "standing by Saudi Arabia" for strategic reasons having to do with Iran, and because it had agreed to invest "a record amount of money" in the United States. As for Mohammed's involvement in the death, the president's statement reads: "It could very well be that the Crown Prince had knowledge of this tragic event - maybe he did and maybe he didn't!"
There were echoes of that justification on Sunday as the president said he remained focused on the business and strategic relationship with Saudi Arabia, which the administration considers a key ally in the Middle East and says "serves as a bulwark against Iran and its proxies' malign activities in the region."
Trump's interview comes as tensions with Iran have escalated after explosions on two oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman and the downing of a U.S. drone, both of which the administration has blamed on Iran.
"I'm not like a fool that says, 'We don't want to do business with them,' " he said, when pressed about the humanitarian concerns raised against Saudi Arabia's leadership. "Take their money. Take their money, Chuck."
"We're going to protect Saudi Arabia," he said. "Look, Saudi Arabia is buying $400 billion worth of things for us. That's a very good thing."
"They buy massive amounts, $150 billion worth of military equipment that, by the way, we use," Trump said. "We use that military equipment. And unlike other countries that don't have money and we have to subsidize everything. So Saudi Arabia is a big buyer of America product. That means something to me. It's a big producer of jobs."
Trump's commitment to working with Saudi Arabia has earned rare rebukes from his own party. Last winter, the Republican-controlled Senate unanimously voted on a resolution holding Mohammed responsible for Khashoggi's death.
And again on Thursday, it voted to block planned arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, a move the White House has said would be met with a veto from the president.
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