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 American 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 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."
Khashoggi had checked his cellphone before entering the consulate but never read messages sent to him minutes later, according to screenshots of WhatsApp messages obtained by NBC News, indicating that he never regained access to the device he used to regularly to communicate with friends and others in the U.S.
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.
The Associated Press could not confirm that report, but a U.S.-based friend of Khashoggi said the journalist had told him he had received a call from an adviser to the Saudi royal court in late May or early June urging him to return to his homeland.
Khaled Saffuri said the adviser, Saud al-Qahtani, told Khashoggi "that the crown prince wants him back and said you are our son, you are loyal, the crown prince would like you to come and be his adviser, stuff like that."
Saffuri said he asked Khashoggi if he would return. "He said: 'Are you crazy? I don't trust him for a minute.'"
In Turkey on Thursday, a spokesman for President Erdogan told the state-run Anadolu Agency that Turkey and Saudi Arabia would form a "joint working group" to look into the journalist's disappearance.
In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said that the Saudi ambassador to the U.S. was traveling to Saudi Arabia, and that the U.S. expects him to provide information about the Khashoggi case when he returns. She added that the U.S. had not requested the ambassador, Prince Khalid bin Salman bin Abdulaziz, to leave.