President Donald Trump said Friday that Saudi Arabia’s government has taken a “great first step” in arresting people in the murder of a dissident Saudi journalist but he does not want to endanger the American alliance with the key Middle East ally.
“It’s not the simplest situation to be in,” Trump told reporters during a briefing at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona.
Speaking little more than three hours after Saudi authorities claimed that Jamal Khashoggi died during a “brawl” inside their consulate in Istanbul, Trump said he found their explanation credible, though more investigation is needed and he needs to learn more about the murder.
“Saudi Arabia has been a great ally, but what happened is unacceptable,” Trump said.
Later, Trump did not mention the murder of Khashoggi during a congressional campaign rally in Mesa, Ariz.
U.S. lawmakers mocked the Saudi explanation, citing evidence that the Saudis lured Khashoggi to Istanbul and hacked him to death with a bone cutter; some accused Trump of trying to help Saudi leadership of helping Saudi leadership cover up their role in the murder.
“The American people need and deserve to know what the White House and our intelligence professionals know,” said Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. “Our country must not be complicit in this cover-up.”
More: Who is Jamal Khashoggi?
In his comments to reporters, Trump said he still wants to speak with the Saudi crown prince, and more investigation needs to be done. He said he does not believe that Saudi leaders have lied to him about the deadly incident.
“We’ll be talking to them,” Trump said. “We’ll see what happens. We may have some questions – we do have some questions.”
Trump also said he wants to work with lawmakers on possible punishment if Saudi leaders are found to have been involved. “Congress is very interested in this one, and we will be working with Congress,” Trump said.
“I think we’re getting close to solving a very big problem,” Trump said.
The president also said, repeatedly, that he would prefer that any retribution not include canceling Saudi Arabia’s $110-billion order for America-made weapon systems, saying that deal involves hundreds of thousands of American jobs.
“I would prefer that we don’t use as retribution cancelling $110 billion worth of work,” he said.
Saudi Arabia is “a great ally in the Middle East,” Trump said, including its role as a “counter-balance to Iran.”
Saudi Arabia’s public prosecutor said 18 Saudi nationals have been arrested in connection with the case. None were identified.
“It’s a big step,” he said. “There’s a lot of people involved.”