President disagrees with his own intelligence agency after a report said it had assessed Mohammed bin Salman did order the murder
The president spoke a week after the Washington Post first reported that the agency had assessed that the Saudi crown prince did order the murder.
Khashoggi, a Saudi national, US resident and Post columnist, went missing after entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on 2 October. He is believed to have been killed and dismembered. His body has not been found.
Prince Mohammed, Saudi Arabia’s de facto leader, has denied any involvement in or knowledge of the murder. After offering numerous contradictory explanations, Riyadh said last week Khashoggi was killed and his body dismembered when “negotiations” to persuade him to return to Saudi Arabia failed.
“They didn’t conclude,” Trump insisted, asked about the CIA report when speaking to reporters at Mar-a-Lago in Florida. “No no, they didn’t conclude. I’m sorry. No they didn’t conclude. They did not come to a conclusion. They have feelings certain ways. I have the report … they have not concluded, I don’t know if anyone’s going to be able to conclude the crown prince did it.
“I will say this: I don’t know, I don’t know. But whether he did or whether he didn’t, he denies it vehemently. His father denies it, the king, vehemently. The CIA doesn’t say they did it, they do point out certain things and in pointing out those things you can conclude that maybe he did or maybe he didn’t.”
Trump said media were guilty of “false reporting” on the issue, and claimed the CIA had said Prince Mohammed “might have done it, which is a big difference”.
The president has been widely criticised for choosing not to act over the death of Khashoggi. On Wednesday, Khashoggi’s editor at the Post, Karen Attiah, posted to Twitter a number of ways in which she said Congress could act instead. Incoming Democratic chairs of House committees could move to declassify the CIA report, she said. Among other suggestions, Attiah suggested such committees could also investigate financial ties between Trump, his son in law and adviser Jared Kushner and Saudi Arabia.
On Thursday, Trump repeated recent remarks about how the needs of US foreign and economic policy governed his response on the issue. He said people should “take a look at what’s going on in Iran, the vicious situation that’s taking place there and the number of people that are being killed and slaughtered”.
“We have a very strong ally in Saudi Arabia,” he said, “an ally that said at the very top level, the crown prince, they did not commit this atrocity, and it’s an atrocity, it’s a terrible thing. I dislike it more than you do. But the fact is they’ve been a very strong ally, they create tremendous wealth in their purchases, but more importantly they keep the oil price down.”
Asked who should be held accountable for Khashoggi’s death if not the Saudis, Trump said: “Maybe the world should be held accountable, because the world’s a very very vicious place.”
Turkey’s government has repeatedly said the order for Khashoggi to be killed came from the “highest levels” of the Saudi government, although it has not directly accused Prince Mohammed.
On Thursday France said it had imposed sanctions, including travel bans, on 18 Saudi citizens linked to the murder, and warned that more could follow depending on results of the current investigation.
“The murder of Mr Khashoggi is a crime of extreme gravity, which moreover goes against freedom of the press and the most fundamental rights,” the French foreign ministry said in a statement. “France asks that all light be shed on the manner in which such an act may have been committed. It expects from the Saudi authorities a transparent, detailed and exhaustive response.”
Denmark said it was halting exports of military equipment to Saudi Arabia, citing the war in Yemen and Khashoggi’s death.
In Florida, Trump also said that “if we go by a certain standard, we won’t be able to have allies with almost any country”.
He added: “I hate the crime, I hate what’s done, I hate the cover-up. I will tell you this: the crown prince hates it more than I do.”