Political News

Trump White House sticking by Saudis despite grisly murder, international outcry

Posted November 2, 2018 11:53 a.m. EDT

— International outcry over the grisly murder of a dissident journalist is not likely to alter US backing of domineering Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, officials familiar with the matter tell CNN.

There is little expectation among Trump administration aides that President Donald Trump and his team will step back from supporting Mohammed, the kingdom's de facto leader, despite a quiet acknowledgment among most officials that he had some knowledge of the plot to silence Jamal Khashoggi, the Washington Post columnist who was killed at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

In a sign the administration and its supporters are not backing off support for Mohammed, a group of evangelical leaders -- some closely associated with Trump -- met in Riyadh this week with the crown prince.

Instead of backing off Prince Mohammed, the US hopes to capitalize on what it regards as new leverage with Saudi Arabia to end the brutal civil war in Yemen and ease a regional standoff with Qatar, according to multiple US and diplomatic officials.

Seeing an opening created by the kingdom's new pariah status, US officials say the time is ripe to move on longstanding goals, including forcing an end to the Saudi-led bombing campaign that has prompted a humanitarian crisis in neighboring Yemen.

The US also fears regional stability could deteriorate if Saudi Arabia's royal court is thrust into a power struggle, a rationale for maintaining support for Mohammed, despite ongoing concerns about his lack of experience and impulsive decisions.

A key Trump ally -- Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu -- voiced that concern on Friday.

"What happened in the Istanbul consulate was horrendous and it should be duly dealt with. Yet at the same time, it is very important for the stability of the world -- for the region and for the world -- that Saudi Arabia remain stable," Netanyahu said at a news conference at the Craiova Group summit in Bulgaria on Friday morning.

In public comments, Trump administration officials -- including the President, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and senior adviser Jared Kushner -- have stopped short of overt criticism of the Crown Prince.

"We're hopeful we can keep pushing forward with a lot of the initiatives that further American interests and that push back against Iran's aggression, so we're going to stay focused on that," Kushner, who rankled some US officials when he developed close ties to Mohammed, said in an interview during CNN's "Citizen" forum last month.

Like other officials, Kushner said the US would make an assessment on whether Mohammed or other Saudi officials were involved once all the facts had come to light.

But their desire for urgency seems to have faded over time.

As Saudi Arabia began providing a shifting explanation of events in the middle of last month, Trump responded with disappointment, saying he was not satisfied and that a month was too long for Saudi investigators to piece together what happened.

Trump said US consequences would come in short order and would be severe.

But this week, the administration suggested it would be several more weeks before they are prepared to apply punishment on those who were responsible for Khashoggi's death.

"It'll take us probably a handful more weeks before we have enough evidence to actually put those sanctions in place, but I think we'll be able to get there," Pompeo said in an interview with a St. Louis radio station on Thursday.