President Donald Trump defended continuing huge sales of US weapons to Saudi Arabia on Thursday despite rising pressure from lawmakers to punish the kingdom over the disappearance of a Saudi journalist, Jamal Khashoggi, 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, saying he was not yet prepared to limit arms sales to Saudi Arabia.
Khashoggi, a contributor to The Washington Post, vanished more than a week ago during a visit to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Turkish government sources say he was murdered there, a claim Riyadh denies.
“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.
Trump said he could not justify sacrificing jobs and income generated by the arms deal.
“That would not be acceptable,” Trump said in the Oval Office. “They are spending $110 billion on military equipment and on things that create jobs.”
The Saudis will “take that money and spend it in Russia or China or someplace else. I think there are other ways. If it turns out to be as bad as it might be, there are certainly other ways of handling the situation.”
However, Trump maintained that the US is being “very tough” as it looks into the case of Jamal Khashoggi, a critic of the Saudi leadership.
“We don’t like it,” he told reporters. “We don’t like it even a little bit.”
US senators wrote a letter to Trump on Wednesday demanding an investigation.
Under the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, such a letter compels the White House to report to Congress within 120 days with a determination about whether human rights abuses occurred, and whether sanctions should be applied.
Stern-faced senators including those in Trump’s Republican Party signaled that arms sales could be a way to punish Riyadh.