Updated at 6:20 p.m. ET
President Trump declared on Tuesday that his administration will remain a "steadfast partner" of Saudi Arabia, despite the CIA's assessment that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman personally approved the killing last month of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
"Maybe he did and maybe he didn't," Trump said of the crown prince's knowledge of the killing.
The president's statement suggests he has no plans to further punish the crown prince or the Saudi government, although Trump said he would be open punitive measures if Congress demands them. But he stressed he would weigh any such steps against American interests as he sees them.
"If we abandon Saudi Arabia, it would be a terrible mistake," Trump told reporters.
The CIA has not publicly commented on its assessment, but according to an individual briefed on the matter, intelligence officials believe the crown prince approved Khashoggi's Oct. 2 killing at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. Trump spoke over the weekend with CIA Director Gina Haspel.
Trump noted that his administration has already sanctioned 17 Saudis thought to have played a role in Khashoggi's killing, but he declined to go further, stressing the close strategic and economic ties the U.S. has with Saudi Arabia.
"We may never know all of the facts surrounding the murder of Mr. Jamal Khashoggi," Trump said in a statement. "In any case, our relationship is with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. They have been a great ally in our very important fight against Iran. The United States intends to remain a steadfast partner of Saudi Arabia to ensure the interests of our country, Israel and all other partners in the region."
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo echoed that assessment in remarks at the State Department.
"It's a mean, nasty world out there. The Middle East in particular," Pompeo said. "It is the president's obligation and indeed the State Department's duty as well to ensure that we adopt policies that further America's national security."
The president's statement drew swift criticism from some members of Congress.
"I fully realize we have to deal with bad actors and imperfect situations on the international stage," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. "However, when we lose our moral voice, we lose our strongest asset."
Graham expects to see a bipartisan appetite among lawmakers for serious sanctions against Saudi Arabia, including members of the royal family.
"While Saudi Arabia is a strategic ally, the behavior of the Crown Prince – in multiple ways – has shown disrespect for the relationship and made him, in my view, beyond toxic," Graham said.
"I never thought I'd see the day a White House would moonlight as a public relations firm for the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia," retiring Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., the outgoing chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee wrote on Twitter.
I never thought I’d see the day a White House would moonlight as a public relations firm for the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia. https://t.co/MQ4JsoQtqk— Senator Bob Corker (@SenBobCorker) November 20, 2018
Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., who serves on the Senate Foreign Relations and Armed Services committees accused Trump of "siding with murderous foreign dictators over American intelligence professionals."
Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., the ranking Democrat on the House intelligence committee, said that in his view, it is "inconceivable" that Prince Salman was not involved in Khashoggi's killing.
"To suggest 'maybe he did and maybe he didn't' or that we are incapable of finding out the truth or that knowing the truth our silence can be bought with arms sales undermines respect for the Office of the Presidency, the credibility of our intelligence community and America's standing as a champion of human rights," Schiff wrote.
In reaffirming his support for Saudi Arabia, Trump highlighted the country's role in keeping oil markets well supplied as well as Saudi arms purchases from the U.S.
"If we foolishly cancel these contracts, Russia and China would be the enormous beneficiaries," Trump said. Experts say the president exaggerates the value of the arms deals and the ease with which the Saudis could switch suppliers.
Earlier this month, the U.S. stopped providing refueling support for Saudi aircraft fighting a proxy war in Yemen. Trump said the Saudis would gladly withdraw from Yemen if Iran would do the same. The war in Yemen has produced what the U.N. describes as the world's worst humanitarian crisis with more than 8 million people facing the threat of famine.
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. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.