Trump de­fends Saudi arms sales amid up­roar

Sun Sentinel Palm Beach Edition - - FRONT PAGE - By Matthew Pennington and Cather­ine Lucey

WASH­ING­TON — Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump de­fended con­tin­u­ing huge sales of U.S. weapons to Saudi Ara­bia on Thurs­day de­spite ris­ing pres­sure from law­mak­ers to pun­ish the king­dom over the dis­ap­pear­ance of a Saudi jour­nal­ist who lived in the United States and is now feared dead.

As sen­a­tors pushed for sanc­tions un­der a hu­man rights law and also ques­tioned U.S. sup­port for the Saudi-led bomb­ing cam­paign in Ye­men, Trump ap­peared re­luc­tant to rock the boat in a re­la­tion­ship that has been key to his strat­egy in the Mid­dle East and which he de­scribed as “ex­cel­lent.” He said with­hold­ing sales would hurt the U.S. econ­omy.

“I don’t like stop­ping mas­sive amounts of money that’s been pour­ing into our coun­try. They are spend­ing $110 bil­lion on mil­i­tary equip­ment,” Trump said, re­fer­ring to pro­posed sales an­nounced in May 2017 when he went to Saudi Ara­bia in the first over­seas trip of his pres­i­dency. He warned that the Saudis could in­stead buy from Rus­sia or China.

Trump main­tained that the U.S. is be­ing “very tough” as it looks into the case of Ja­mal Khashoggi, a critic of the Saudi lead­er­ship and a con­trib­u­tor to The Wash­ing­ton Post who has

been miss­ing since Oct. 2. He had en­tered a Saudi con­sulate in the Turk­ish city of Is­tan­bul to get mar­riage pa­per­work as his fi­ancee waited out­side, and he hasn’t been seen since.

Turk­ish of­fi­cials say they fear Saudi Ara­bia killed and dis­mem­bered Khashoggi but have of­fered no ev­i­dence be­yond video footage of the jour­nal­ist en­ter­ing the con­sulate and the ar­rival in the coun­try of what they describe as a 15-mem­ber Saudi team that al­legedly tar­geted him. Saudi Ara­bia has de­nied the al­le­ga­tion as “base­less.”

In Is­tan­bul, Turk­ish me­dia said that Saudi royal guards, in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cers, sol­diers and an au­topsy ex­pert had been part of the team flown in and tar­get­ing Khashoggi. Those re­ported de­tails, along with com­ments from Turk­ish Pres­i­dent Re­cep Tayyip Er­do­gan, ap­peared aimed at grad­u­ally pres­sur­ing Saudi Ara­bia to re­veal what hap­pened while also balanc­ing a need to main­tain Saudi in­vest­ments in Turkey and re­la­tions on other is­sues.

Trump, ques­tioned by re­porters at the White House, said, “If it turns out to be as bad as it might be, there are cer­tainly other ways of han­dling this sit­u­a­tion” be­sides cancel­ing arms sales. He did not elab­o­rate.

He said ear­lier on “Fox & Friends” that “we have in­ves­ti­ga­tors over there and we’re work­ing with Turkey” and with Saudi Ara­bia on the case, but he pro­vided no ev­i­dence or elab­o­ra­tion.

Mean­while, there was a clear and grow­ing dis­con­nect be­tween many in Congress, who want tougher ac­tion, and the pres­i­dent.

Even be­fore Khashoggi’s dis­ap­pear­ance, law­mak­ers had soured on a Saudi gov­ern­ment they view as hav­ing a high-handed at­ti­tude. Some have been in­cred­u­lous at its de­nials of wrong­do­ing and con­tention it has no recorded video footage from the con­sulate show­ing Khashoggi, who had been liv­ing in self-ex­ile in Vir­ginia for the past year.

“There’s a sense of en­ti­tle­ment, I hate to use the word, ar­ro­gance, that comes with deal­ing with them,” said Sen. Bob Corker, Repub­li­can chair­man of the Se­nate For­eign Re­la­tions Com­mit­tee. “Part of that may be that they have an in­cred­i­bly close re­la­tion­ship with the ad­min­is­tra­tion.”

Demo­cratic Sen. Chris Mur­phy voiced doubt there would be sup­port in Congress to ap­prove an­other arms sale to Saudi Ara­bia — al­though law­mak­ers haven’t blocked sales be­fore. He also called for at least a tem­po­rary halt in U.S. mil­i­tary sup­port for the Saudi bomb­ing cam­paign against Ira­nian-backed rebels in Ye­men.

If Saudi Ara­bia is not telling the truth about Khashoggi, he told re­porters, “why would we be­lieve them that they are not in­ten­tion­ally hit­ting civil­ians in­side Ye­men?”

Mur­phy was among seven sen­a­tors who wrote to Sec­re­tary of State Mike Pom­peo on Wed­nes­day rais­ing con­cerns over last month’s cer­ti­fi­ca­tion that a Saudi-led coali­tion was tak­ing ac­tions to pro­tect civil­ians de­spite what the law­mak­ers de­scribed as a dra­matic in­crease in deaths.

The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion, how­ever, is heavily in­vested in the long-stand­ing, U.S. re­la­tion­ship with Riyadh. It re­lies on Saudi sup­port for its Mid­dle East ef­fort to counter Ira­nian in­flu­ence and fight ex­trem­ism. Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kush­ner, has cul­ti­vated close ties with Saudi Crown Prince Mo­hammed bin Sal­man, and was in­stru­men­tal in last year’s $110 bil­lion arms pack­age.

Those as­so­ci­a­tions could be­come a po­lit­i­cal li­a­bil­ity if Prince Mo­hammed is im­pli­cated in Khashoggi’s dis­ap­pear­ance. The Wash­ing­ton Post, cit­ing anony­mous Amer­i­can of­fi­cials it said were fa­mil­iar with U.S. in­tel­li­gence, said the crown prince had pre­vi­ously or­dered an op­er­a­tion to lure Khashoggi back to Saudi Ara­bia and de­tain him.

AN­DREW HARRER/BLOOMBERG NEWS

Pres­i­dent Trump said the White House is look­ing at Ja­mal Khashoggi’s dis­ap­pear­ance.

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