AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
President Trump is sticking with Saudi Arabia and that country's volatile crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman. The president issued a statement today saying the U.S. will remain a steadfast partner of the Saudis. And that's despite an assessment from the CIA that Prince Salman personally approved last month's killing of a U.S.-based journalist, Jamal Khashoggi.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: If we abandon Saudi Arabia, it would be a terrible mistake.
CORNISH: NPR's Scott Horsley joins us now from the White House. And, Scott, are people - people are talking about the president essentially giving Prince Salman a pass here.
SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: That's right, Audie. It's been seven weeks now since Jamal Khashoggi was killed by a 15-man hit squad inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. And since then, the administration has sanctioned some individual Saudis thought to be involved, but it's been reluctant to take action against the Saudi government. And that's even, after as you say, the CIA assessed that Prince Salman personally approved the killing. That's according to an individual familiar with the situation who confirmed that to NPR.
Even after that, the president continued to drag his feet. He told reporters as he was traveling in California over the weekend that he was waiting for a full report, which he promised would be out today. That report appears to be this three-page statement from the president in which he brushes aside the CIA's assessment and says of the crown prince, maybe he did, maybe he didn't play a role in Khashoggi's killing. We may never know. So that would appear to be, at least for now, a pass for the prince.
CORNISH: Is there a sense about why the president is so reluctant to make the Saudi government specifically pay a price for the Khashoggi - Khashoggi killing?
HORSLEY: Well, he stressed the long-term strategic and economic ties between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia. And it's true. This is an alliance that dates back to the 1940s, but it has really been heightened in the last two years of the Trump administration. Trump has gone all-in with the Saudis not only against their mutual archrival, Iran, but also smaller, regional rivals like Qatar.
What's more, the president's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, has established a personal bond with Prince Salman. They're both ambitious and wealthy young men in their 30s. They seem to have a similar worldview. Kushner is counting on the prince's help to advance his long-stalled Middle East peace plan.
So the administration has really put a big bet on the Saudis and Prince Salman, and they're not willing to give that up, even after the grisly killing of Khashoggi.
CORNISH: Looking through his statement, the president seems to be making the case that whatever bad things Saudi Arabia might have done, it pales in comparison to the actions of Iran. A lot of focus there - what's going on?
HORSLEY: That's right. This is the old the-enemy-of-my-enemy-is-my-friend philosophy, even if it's not a very friendly friend. And you heard an echo of that hardheaded view this afternoon from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
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MIKE POMPEO: It's a mean, nasty world out there, the Middle East in particular. It is the president's obligation, indeed the State Department's duty as well, to ensure that we adopt policies that further the - America's national security.
HORSLEY: Trump is also talking about the Saudis' role in keeping the oil taps open. And he pointed, as he often does, to Saudi arms purchases from the U.S. Although, as he often does, he exaggerated the value of those purchases.
CORNISH: What kind of a reaction is the president getting from Congress?
HORSLEY: Congressional Democrats have been very critical. Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said it's inconceivable Prince Salman was not involved in Khashoggi's killing. New Hampshire Senator Jeanne Shaheen, who's on the Foreign Relations and Armed Services Committee, accused the president of siding with murderous foreign dictators over American intelligence professionals. And Senator Shaheen called that a stain on our democracy.
Now, though, I should say the president left the door open today to considering additional punitive action against the Saudis if Congress demands it. But he said he would only go along with those additional punitive actions if they met his test of what's in America's interest.
CORNISH: NPR White House correspondent Scott Horsley. Scott, thank you.
HORSLEY: You're welcome.
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