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Trump 'stands with' Saudi Arabia and defends crown prince over Khashoggi

The Guardian logo The Guardian 20/11/2018 Julian Borger in Washington and Martin Chulov in Beirut

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Donald Trump has expressed his unstinting support for Saudi Arabia and questioned whether Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince, knew about the murder of the Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.

In the extraordinary statement issued on Tuesday – which begins with the words “The world is a very dangerous place!” – Trump quotes Saudi officials as describing Khashoggi as an “enemy of the state”.

The 649-word statement appears to be a presidential act of defiance against the CIA, which has reportedly concluded that the Saudi prince ordered the killing, and the Senate, which is considering bipartisan legislation that would suspend weapons sales to Saudi Arabia among other punitive measures.

Trump wrote: “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!”

“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.”

As he has in the past with Vladimir Putin, Trump put official denials of wrongdoing from Riyadh on a par with US intelligence assessments.

He said: “King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman vigorously deny any knowledge of the planning or execution of the murder of Mr Khashoggi.”

a man and a woman standing in front of a cake: Donald Trump with Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman in March. The 649-word statement appears to be a presidential act of defiance against the CIA. © Getty Images Donald Trump with Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman in March. The 649-word statement appears to be a presidential act of defiance against the CIA. Trump’s statement, titled “standing with Saudi Arabia” seeks to portray the kingdom as an essential US ally in a struggle against Iran, and an irreplaceable customer for US arms sales.

It makes a series of false or unsubstantiated claims, suggesting that Riyadh is buying $110bn in US weapons. The actual total of offers since Trump took office is less than $15bn, and the value of actual signed contracts is significantly lower than that.

He said: “If we foolishly cancel these contracts, Russia and China would be the enormous beneficiaries – and very happy to acquire all of this newfound business. It would be a wonderful gift to them directly from the United States!”

Weapons experts have said it would take Saudi Arabia decades to reconfigure its armed forces to use Russian and Chinese equipment.

A new independent report found that US arms sales to Saudi Arabia account for fewer than 20,000 US jobs a year – less than a 20th of the employment boost Donald Trump has claimed.

Trump said in his statement: “The crime against Jamal Khashoggi was a terrible one, and one that our country does not condone.” He pointed out that the US has imposed individual sanctions on 17 Saudis identified by Riyadh for their alleged involvement in the 2 October murder.

The president said that “representatives of Saudi Arabia say that Jamal Khashoggi was an ‘enemy of the state’ and a member of the Muslim Brotherhood”.

Trump added: “My decision is in no way based on that.” But he did not explain why he mentioned the smear against Khashoggi at all.

Nicholas Burns, the under-secretary of state for political affairs in the George W Bush administration, said: “This Trump statement on the Khashoggi murder is beyond embarrassing. It is shameful. He cites uncritically the MBS smear that Khashoggi was a traitor. He argues the US can’t afford to alienate Riyadh due to oil and Iran. He is silent on our most important interest – justice.”

Trump’s enthusiastic support for Riyadh coincides with a drive by the crown prince to rehabilitate himself on the world stage. The Argentinian government confirmed to the Guardian on Tuesday that he is on the list of attendees at the G20 summit at the end of the month in Buenos Aires.

Also on the guest list is Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who has condemned Riyadh for the murder and whose government has put out a steady stream of leaks from the investigation, pointing towards Saudi government culpability at the highest levels.

In the latest of those leaks, the influential pro-government outlet Habertürk published excerpts of a purported transcript of an audio recording of the murder.

According to its account, the Saudi hitman chosen as a lookalike among Jamal Khashoggi’s assassins was apparently recorded saying, “It’s creepy to wear the clothes of a man we killed 20 minutes ago,” before he stepped from the Kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul in a failed bid to prove the slain dissident had left the building.

The chilling detail was among the latest excerpts released by Turkish officials seven weeks after Khashoggi was murdered. Other details include the surprised 59-year-old journalist demanding: “release my arm, what do you think you’re doing,” moments after entering the diplomatic mission.

A listening device inside the consulate apparently captured Maher Mutreb, a trusted aide of Prince Mohammed, replying: “Traitor, you will be brought to account.”

The existence of recordings that captured the final minutes of Khashoggi’s life has been central to the Turkish case against Riyadh, adding a visceral dimension to a shocking killing that has pitted both regional powerhouses against each other, and reverberated through the region.

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