WASHINGTON — U.S. President Donald Trump on Wednesday expressed reservations about halting U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia over the disappearance of a Saudi journalist, warning such a move “would be hurting us.”
The Trump administration has strengthened U.S. relations with Riyadh, touting a $110 billion package of proposed weapons sales as a key economic achievement, but reports the Saudi government plotted the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at its consulate in Turkey has added pressure.
In a Wednesday night interview on Fox News, Trump said he would want to know what happened before committing to a response and expressed reluctance to halt arms sales to Riyadh, citing economic concerns.
“Well, I think that would be hurting us. We have jobs. We have a lot of things happening in this country. We have a country that's doing probably better economically than it's ever done before,” Trump said.
“Part of that is what we are doing with our defense systems, and everybody is wanting them, and frankly I think that would be a very, very tough pill to swallow for our country. I mean, you’re affecting us.”
On Trump’s first trip abroad as president, he visited Saudi Arabia and announced the massive arms sales package. U.S. ties have long been anchored by energy interests, counterterror cooperation and more recently U.S.-Saudi military cooperation in the Yemen civil war.
Since 2009, the executive branch has notified Congress of proposed foreign military sales to Saudi Arabia of major defense articles and services with a potential aggregate value of nearly $139 billion, according to a Congressional Research Service report. The U.S. and Saudi Arabia concluded arms sale agreements worth more than $65 billion, from fiscal 2009 through fiscal 2016.
Earlier Wednesday, Republican Sen. Bob Corker, who as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and reviewed U.S. intelligence on the case, said it was likely that Khashoggi was killed the day he walked into the consulate. Whatever took place, Corker said, “there was Saudi involvement” and “everything points to them.”
More than 20 Republicans and Democratic senators on Wednesday instructed Trump to order a probe into Khashoggi’s disappearance under legislation that authorizes imposition of sanctions for perpetrators of extrajudicial killings, torture or other gross human rights violations.
Connecticut Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy on Thursday called for the administration to cease military support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, citing reports that Khashoggi was killed at the Saudi consulate in Turkey. Murphy is part of a growing call in Congress to check U.S. support — which includes aerial refueling and arms sales — amid reports Saudi airstrikes have killed civilians.
“The United States cannot be in a military partnership with a country that has this little concern for human life,” said Murphy, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “The Saudis continue to claim that they aren’t targeting civilians inside Yemen, but how can we believe them when they apparently just hunted down and murdered an American resident whose only offense was writing critical articles about the Saudi royal family? This is the right time to suspend our military support for the disastrous bombing campaign in Yemen.”
Earlier in the week, Sen. Rand Paul, another member of the committee, called for a halt on U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia until Khashoggi is found alive.
“To me, this is just one more reason why we should be very suspect about selling arms to the Saudis,” Paul, R-Ky., said in a Fox News interview. “If they have the ability and also the audacity to go into another country and kill a journalist, these aren’t the kind of people maybe that we want to be selling arms to.”
Paul also cited Saudi Arabia’s intervention in neighboring Yemen’s civil war.
“What you do have evidence of is that the Saudis have been bombing civilians in Yemen for over a year now,” he said. “I think [there’s] growing opposition to what the Saudis are doing in Yemen, and this just adds to it.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Joe Gould is senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry.