President Donald Trump said he would not listen to a recording of the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi even as an upcoming report on the slaying threatens to put him in a diplomatic bind: how to admonish Riyadh for the slaying yet maintain strong ties with a close ally.
Trump, in an interview that aired Sunday, made clear that the audio recording, supplied by the Turkish government, would not change his decision on how to respond to the Oct. 2 killing, which U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded was ordered by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
“Because it’s a suffering tape, it’s a terrible tape. I’ve been fully briefed on it, there’s no reason for me to hear it,” Trump said in the interview with “Fox News Sunday.” ”I know everything that went on in the tape without having to hear it.”
Reporters asked Trump, as he toured fire damage in California on Saturday, about the death of Khashoggi, a columnist for The Washington Post who was often critical of the Saudi royal family. Saudi Arabia’s top diplomat has said the crown prince had “absolutely” nothing to do with it.
“We’ll be having a very full report over the next two days, probably Monday or Tuesday,” Trump said. That will include “who did it,” he said.
It was not clear if the findings of the report would be made public. Officials familiar with the case cautioned that while it’s likely the crown prince was involved in the death, there continue to be questions about what role he played.
Trump told “Fox News Sunday” that Crown Prince Mohammed had repeatedly denied being involved in the killing inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. The president declined to say if evidence that the crown prince, with whom the Trump administration developed close ties, was involved with the killing would alter relations with Riyadh.
“Well, will anybody really know?” Trump said. “At the same time, we do have an ally, and I want to stick with an ally that in many ways has been very good.”
For his part, Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Trump ally, said the crown prince has been a “wrecking ball” in the relationship between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia.
“I hate to say that because I had a lot of hope for him being the reformer that Saudi Arabia needs, but that ship has sailed as far as Lindsey Graham’s concerned,” the South Carolina Republican told NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
“I have no intention of working with him ever again,” said Graham, who is in line to be the next chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Intelligence officials have been providing information to Trump about the death for weeks and he was briefed again by phone Saturday by CIA Director Gina Haspel and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo as he flew to California. White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders provided no details of his call but said the president has confidence in the CIA.
“The United States government is determined to hold all those responsible for the killing of Jamal Khashoggi accountable,” the State Department said in a statement. “Recent reports indicating that the U.S. government has made a final conclusion are inaccurate. There remain numerous unanswered questions with respect to the murder of Mr. Khashoggi.”
The statement added: “The U.S. government has taken decisive measures against the individuals responsible, including visa and sanctions actions. We will continue to explore additional measures to hold those accountable who planned, led and were connected to the murder. And, we will do that while maintaining the important strategic relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia.”
Before his call on Air Force One, Trump told reporters that when it came to the crown prince, “as of this moment we were told that he did not play a role. We’re going to have to find out what they have to say.” That echoed remarks by national security adviser John Bolton, who said earlier this week that people who have listened to an audio recording of the killing do not think it implicates the crown prince.
Trump has called the killing a botched operation that was carried out very poorly and has said “the cover-up was one of the worst cover-ups in the history of cover-ups.”
But he has resisted calls to cut off arms sales to the kingdom and has been reluctant to antagonize the Saudi rulers. Trump considers the Saudis vital allies in his Mideast agenda.
But members of Congress are pushing Trump for a tougher response to the killing. The administration this past week penalized 17 Saudi officials for their alleged role in the killing, but American lawmakers have called on the administration to curtail arms sales to Saudi Arabia or take other harsher punitive measures.
Vice President Mike Pence told reporters traveling with him Saturday for a summit of Pacific Rim nations in Papua, New Guinea, that the “murder of Jamal Khashoggi was an atrocity. It was also an affront to a free and independent press, and the United States is determined to hold all of those accountable who are responsible for that murder.”
Khashoggi, a Saudi who lived in the United States, often criticized the royal family. Turkish and Saudi authorities say he was killed inside the consulate by a team from the kingdom after he went there to get marriage documents.