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With Khashoggi decision, Trump places strategic interests above human rights

President Trump announced he will not sanction Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The President indicated he had no intention of breaking with the longtime American ally. Nick Schifrin reports, and the Washington Post's Fred Hiatt joins Judy Woodruff to analyze the administration's response to the international incident.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    We return to the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi journalist and Washington Post columnist.

    As The Washington Post first reported on Friday, the CIA assesses that the powerful crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman, was likely responsible for the October murder in Istanbul.

    This afternoon, President Trump made his clearest statements yet on the killing, why he does not blame the crown prince, and on the ramifications for American policy.

  • President Donald Trump:

    It's a very complex situation. It's a shame, but it's — it is what it is.

    We're not going to give up hundreds of billions of dollars in orders and let Russia, China and everybody else have them. It's all about, for me, very simple. It's America first.

    Saudi Arabia, if we broke with them, I think your oil prices would go through the roof. Just take a look at Iran. And you look at what they're doing. They are a terrorist nation right now.

    We also need a counterbalance. And Israel needs help also. If we abandoned Saudi Arabia, it would be a terrible mistake.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    For more on all this, our foreign affairs correspondent, Nick Schifrin, is here with me now.

    So, Nick, what's the thinking behind the administration's decision to handle this, this way?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    That strategic interests are more important than human rights concerns and the president wants to stick by not only Saudi Arabia, but by the crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman.

    On the strategic concerns, you heard the president and what he said. Saudi Arabia is critical for keeping oil down, Mideast peace plan, countering violent extremism.

    And he's not the first president to say that Saudi is a strategic ally. Each of his predecessors for the last 70 years or so has decided that Saudi strategic interests are more important than any questions about human rights concerns.

    Now, on Mohammed bin Salman, he is rejecting his intelligence community's assessment. In a statement released this afternoon, the president said — quote — "Our intelligence agencies continue to assess all information. But it could very well be that the crown prince had knowledge of this tragic event. Maybe he did, and maybe he didn't."

    Now, the CIA assessed that Mohammed bin Salman was likely responsible for Khashoggi's murder. But U.S. officials I speak to say there's no smoking gun. There is some circumstantial evidence. And there's an assessment that there's no way that the crown prince would know that — wouldn't know that this was coming, given the nature of how Saudi Arabia works.

    But that's an assessment. And the president is exploiting that ambiguity. The president, of course, has questioned the intelligence community before about Russia and 2016. But at the end of the day, the CIA provides assessments, and the president provides policy.

    And he's not the first president to receive an intelligence assessment and decide to do something different than that assessment leads to obviously.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, after this statement was made, after the administration made it clear what their position was, criticism, serious criticism from both political parties.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Yes, especially from Republican senators.

    So let me show you first something that the president also wrote in his statement. He wrote that "Representatives of Saudi Arabia say that Jamal Khashoggi was an enemy of the state and a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, but my decision is in no way based on that — this is an unacceptable and horrible crime."

    This is a Saudi Arabian talking point. Jamal Khashoggi's past connection with the Muslim Brotherhood somehow invalidates his criticism.

    The Saudis have been whispering that, and the president repeated that in his statement, which led Bob Corker, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, to tweet this afternoon: "I never thought I would see the day a White House would moonlight as a public relations firm for the crown prince of Saudi Arabia."

    And Senator Lindsey Graham, more of an ally, by the way, of the president, released this statement: "It is not in our national security interests to look the other way when it comes to the brutal murder of Jamal Khashoggi. I fully realize we have to deal with bad actors and imperfect situations on the international stage. However, when we lose our moral voice, we lose our strongest asset."

    Next week, senators will come back, will have to decide whether they want to put pressure on the president and put more pressure on Saudi Arabia than the president has. And one Republican aide did tell me today that this statement that the president released will likely encouraged senators to put more pressure on Saudi Arabia than the president did.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, we are — the reaction is going to continue to come in. And I know you have been staying on the story.

    Nick Schifrin, thank you.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Thank you.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And now for reaction from The Washington Post, where Jamal Khashoggi was a columnist.

    We're joined by the newspaper's editorial page editor, Fred Hiatt.

    Fred Hiatt, welcome to the program.

    The Post's reaction to the president's — the administration's announcement?

  • Fred Hiatt:

    I'm stunned, Judy, to be honest.

    There have been a lot of kind of amazing and dismaying things from this president, but I — really, I don't think I ever expected to hear a United States president say, maybe he was responsible for murder, maybe he wasn't, it doesn't matter.

    I mean, that's just almost beyond belief for a country to take that position.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, you have long covered American foreign policy, U.S. foreign policy.

    Fred, you are familiar with what the president said today. He said, this is entirely in U.S. strategic interests not to do anything to alienate, in so many words, not to do anything that would separate the U.S. from its close relationship with Saudi Arabia.

  • Fred Hiatt:

    Yes, it's — I think it's wrong on so many levels.

    I mean, even if you wanted to say, human rights don't matter and strategic interest to do, it makes no sense, because everything this reckless 33-year-old crown prince has done has hurt American interests. He entered this war in Yemen, which has been a disaster. He broke with Qatar, an American ally. That's been harmful to U.S. interests. He kidnaps the Lebanese prime minister and so forth.

    It's not — even a realpolitik analysis wouldn't say this person is acting in us interest. And, more broadly, I would say if we want to live in a world where a dictator can lure one of his own citizens to diplomatic a compound, which is supposed to be a sanctuary, deliberately murder and dismember him, and get away with it, that's what's going to make the world a dangerous place.

    And accepting that is what's going to make the world a dangerous place. Everything Trump said in that regard is just backwards.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And so, when the president argues, as we heard him in that report just a moment ago, say that we think this is going to drive the Saudis into the arms of the Chinese and the Russians, you're saying that's not a real concern?

  • Fred Hiatt:

    Look, I'm not saying the United States and Saudi Arabia shouldn't be — shouldn't have a relationship, shouldn't have an alliance, if both countries think it's in their interest.

    But, first of all, MBS is not Saudi Arabia. The king is the ruler in Saudi Arabia. And, you know, perfectly possible for the United States to say, we want a relationship, but we also think there was a murder, and whoever was responsible for the murder should be held to account.

    Those are two separate questions. And, also, you know, I think they are playing Trump for a fool, in the sense that, you know, they present this story now of how Khashoggi died, which is a clear lie, and we swallow it. And they have him kind of — you know, the Saudis, as he said himself a few weeks ago, need the United States a lot more than the United States needs Saudi Arabia.

    Thirty years ago, maybe that wasn't true, but the United States is now an energy exporter. You know, these arms sales that he's always talking about, it's been maybe $4 billion, not $110 billion. So the power balance is very much different than how he seems to see it.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Fred Hiatt is the editorial page editor for The Washington Post.

    Fred, thank you very much.

  • Fred Hiatt:

    Thanks for having me.

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