President Donald Trump said he raised the murder of columnist Jamal Khashoggi in a meeting with Mohammed bin Salman on Saturday, as he called Saudi Arabia’s crown prince a friend and praised him for reforms in the kingdom.
"I asked him what was happening” with Khashoggi’s death, Trump said at a briefing at the end of the Group of 20 summit in Osaka, Japan where the president earlier had breakfast with the crown prince.
“There are large numbers of people being prosecuted. He’s very angry about it, he’s very unhappy about it,” Trump said of the killing. “I did mention it to him very strongly, and he answered very strongly.”
Trump refused to answer questions about Khashoggi at the breakfast or during meetings with other leaders at the summit. Asked if he feared offending Prince Mohammed, Trump responded: “I don’t really care about offending people.”
The crown prince, known as MBS, has become a pariah in Washington since Khashoggi’s killing at the hand of Saudi agents in the kingdom’s Istanbul consulate. But Trump described Saudi Arabia as an important U.S. ally that buys billions of dollars in American weapons and is making significant reforms to its society, including moves to give greater freedoms to women and end support for terrorism.
“For a long time there were questions about whether Saudi Arabia or other countries were sponsoring terror,” Trump said at the start of the breakfast meeting. “A tremendous effort has been put on to go exact the opposite way.”
“We have a great relationship and that’s very important,” Trump said, calling the prince a “friend of mine.”
Changes in the kingdom, Trump said, are “like a revolution in a very positive way.”
“We’re trying to do the best for our country,” MBS responded, adding: “It’s a long journey. We need to do more.”
Trump has made Saudi Arabia the centerpiece of his Middle East strategy of isolating Iran, hosting Prince Mohammed in the Oval Office months after his inauguration, promising hundreds of billions of dollars in weapons sales to the kingdom and making his first trip abroad as president to Riyadh, where he took part in a ceremonial sword dance.
Still, the meeting comes just over a week after the Senate voted to block arms sales to the kingdom. Republicans and Democrats have demanded greater scrutiny of Saudi Arabia over the military campaign it’s leading in Yemen’s civil war and over the killing of Khashoggi by Saudi agents.
Trump did not answer a shouted question about Khashoggi from a reporter at the start of his meeting with Prince Mohammed. A readout from the White House later said the leaders discussed “the importance of human rights issues.”
Prince Mohammed has denied any role in the death of Khashoggi, a former government insider and MBS critic who was killed and dismembered in October after entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. A United Nations expert assigned to investigate the circumstances has recommended probing the crown prince’s possible involvement.
Trump said at the news conference that “nobody has pointed a finger at the future king of Saudi Arabia” for the killing. “With that being said, I’m extremely angry and unhappy about a thing like that taking place,” he added.
But the Washington Post has reported that the Central Intelligence Agency concluded the crown prince ordered the execution.
Trump said at the briefing that he wouldn’t comment on the intelligence community’s findings. "The truth is that I just don’t want to talk about intelligence,” he said.
The breakfast meeting came days after Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner convened a workshop in Bahrain of representatives of Gulf nations including the Saudis to present a $50 billion economic plan aimed at enticing Palestinians to reach a peace agreement with Israel. The Palestinians boycotted the meeting.
Saudi Arabia has joined the U.S. in pushing for a firm stance against Iran after a recent spate of attacks on tankers and oil installations in the Gulf. While the U.K., Germany and Saudi Arabia have agreed that Iran was probably behind the attacks, other U.S. allies have stopped short of publicly blaming the Islamic Republic.
The White House said in a post-meeting Twitter post that Trump and MBS “discussed Iran’s heightened aggression.”
“Both leaders are committed to maintaining a strong international oil market in the face of Iran’s behavior.”
The U.S. is trying to rally countries to its side at the United Nations, where most members blame Trump’s administration for stoking tensions by abandoning the multinational nuclear deal with Iran last year and applying renewed sanctions on the Iranian economy.