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Trump: Saudi Arabia would turn to Russia, China if U.S. ends arms sales over missing journalist

POLITICO logo POLITICO 5 days ago By Jesus Rodriguez and Matthew Choi
a group of people posing for the camera: Members of the Turkish-Arab journalist association hold posters with photos of missing Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, as they hold a protest near the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul on Monday. © AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis Members of the Turkish-Arab journalist association hold posters with photos of missing Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, as they hold a protest near the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul on Monday.

President Donald Trump said Thursday that Saudi Arabia would redirect its spending to U.S. rivals if he cut off arms sales over the disappearance of Jamal Khashoggi, noting to reporters that the journalist is not a U.S. citizen.

"This took place in Turkey, and to the best of our knowledge, Khashoggi is not a United States citizen," Trump told reporters at the White House, adding that "we don't like it."

Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist who had been living in exile in the United States and writing for The Washington Post, vanished after entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul last week. Khashoggi has been a vocal critic of the Saudi royal family, and reports citing Turkish intelligence suggest he was killed shortly after entering the consulate.

Trump, despite mounting criticism that his administration is not doing enough to confront the Saudi government, has said he is trying to find out what happened to Khashoggi, though he has appeared unwilling to take punitive steps such as cutting off arms sales to the country. The State Department also said such steps would be "getting ahead" of the local investigation.

"I don't like the concept of stopping an investment of $110 billion into the United States," Trump told reporters on Thursday. "You know what they are going to do? They're going to take that money and spend it in Russia or China or someplace else. I think there are other ways."

Trump said Thursday morning on "Fox & Friends" that he was "probably getting closer" to finding out what happened to Khashoggi after contact Saudi officials.

"I have to find out what happened," Trump told the Fox News morning show when asked about possible repercussions for Saudi Arabia. "We're probably getting closer than you might think, but I have to find out what happened."

"We don't like it. I don't like it. No good," Trump added.

Trump said he has had contact with Saudi leadership "at the highest level" concerning Khashoggi's disappearance. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said Thursday that the department asked Saudi Ambassador to the U.S. Khalid bin Salman, who is traveling to Saudi Arabia, to report back with any information about Khashoggi upon his return to the United States.

Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-VA) said Wednesday that the administration's calls for a Saudi-led investigation was "the weakest of responses," advocating an independent international inquiry into Khashoggi's disappearance.

Though not a U.S. citizen, Khashoggi is a resident of Connolly's district. The Democrat said if the reports that Khashoggi was killed by Saudi agents are confirmed, it would merit "an entire reassessment" of the United States' relationship with Saudi Arabia. Connolly compared the situation to the attempted murder of a former KGB officer — who is also not a U.S. citizen — in London, after which the United States applied sanctions against Russia under U.S. biological and chemical weapons law.

"Mr. President, my constituent Jamal Khashoggi is not a sacrificial lamb to offer your cash cow. #JusticeForJamal" Connolly tweeted after Trump's comments Thursday.

Saudi Arabia has roundly denied that Khashoggi died inside its consulate, although the Saudi government has yet to produce video backing up its claim that the journalist left the facility through a back door and has yet to make good on its promise to allow Turkish authorities to search the building.

During his interview on "Fox & Friends," Trump said relations with Saudi Arabia were "excellent," boasting that the Middle Eastern kingdom benefits from U.S. protection. Trump also brokered a nearly $110 billion defense agreement with King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud in May 2017.

"Saudi Arabia is a very rich country. And for years and years, there would be no Saudi Arabia if there wasn't a United States, because we protected them," Trump said.

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