WASHINGTON -- President Donald Trump on Thursday flatly opposed halting U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia in response to a diplomatic furor over a journalist who disappeared after entering the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, saying a cutoff would only invite China and Russia to sell weapons to the Saudis instead.
Trump's foreign policy in the Middle East relies heavily on close military ties with Saudi Arabia, and the growing global attention to the plight of Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi-born U.S. resident and a prominent critic of the Saudi royal family, threatens to disrupt the administration's regional aims.
Saudi Arabia has vehemently denied Turkish reports that a 15-member security team killed Khashoggi inside the consulate in Istanbul and then flew his dismembered body out of the country. The Washington Post reported that U.S. intelligence intercepts indicate the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, personally approved an operation to lure Khashoggi from his home in Virginia to detain him.
Saudi officials have insisted that Khashoggi left the consulate shortly after he arrived but have offered no evidence. He does not appear leaving the diplomatic office in any of the surveillance video released so far.
Speaking to reporters in the Oval Office, Trump expressed concern about Khashoggi's disappearance, but refused to distance himself from his closest ally in the Arab world.
"That would not be acceptable to me," Trump replied after reporters asked whether he would halt arms sales if the government in Riyadh were implicated in killing or kidnapping Khashoggi.
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"What happened is a terrible thing, assuming that happened," the president said. Trump said Khashoggi's status as a U.S. resident, and not a U.S. citizen, weighed against suspending arms sales that have been lucrative for the American defense industry.
"This took place in Turkey, and to the best of our knowledge Khashoggi is not a U.S. citizen," he said. "As to whether we should stop $110 billion from being spent in this country -- that would not be acceptable to me."
Trump was given a sumptuous welcome in Riyadh in May 2017, his first stop on his first foreign trip as president last year, and his administration has worked closely with the crown prince in efforts to support Israel and to isolate Iran, Saudi Arabia's traditional rival, as part of a still-unrealized Middle East realignment.
After the trip, analysts said Trump's boasts of $110 billion in newly struck arms deals was misleading because it represented letters of interest and not actual contracts.