WASHINGTON - President Donald Trump said Tuesday the U.S. is standing by Saudi Arabia even though the president acknowledged Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman may have known about a Saudi operation last month to kill dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside Riyadh's consulate in Istanbul.
'It could very well be that the Crown Prince had knowledge of this tragic event - maybe he did and maybe he didn't!' Trump said in a statement, adding that 'we may never know all of the facts surrounding the murder.'
But the U.S. leader said, '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.'
Multiple U.S. news agencies have cited U.S. intelligence officials saying the Central Intelligence Agency has concluded that the crown prince, the de facto Saudi leader, ordered the October 2 killing. Saudi officials deny this.
Trump said, 'The crime against Jamal Khashoggi was a terrible one, and one that our country does not condone.' But he said it would be foolish for the U.S. to cancel a possible $110 billion in U.S. defense contracts with Saudi Arabia, arguing that 'Russia and China would be the enormous beneficiaries - and very happy to acquire all of this newfound business. It would be a wonderful gift to them directly from the United States!'
FILE - A man holds a poster showing images of Saudi Crown Prince Muhammed bin Salman and of journalist writer Jamal Khashoggi, describing the prince as 'assassin' and Khashoggi as 'martyr' during funeral prayers in absentia for Khashoggi who was killed last month in Saudi Arabia's consulate, in Istanbul, Turkey, Nov. 16, 2018.
Trump said he understands that some lawmakers in Congress, who 'for political or other reasons,' want to pursue sanctions against Riyadh for the killing and said, 'They are free to do so.'
'I will consider whatever ideas are presented to me, but only if they are consistent with the absolute security and safety of America,' Trump said.
'After the United States, Saudi Arabia is the largest oil producing nation in the world,' Trump said. 'They have worked closely with us and have been very responsive to my requests to keeping oil prices at reasonable levels - so important for the world.'
He concluded, 'As president of the United States I intend to ensure that, in a very dangerous world, America is pursuing its national interests and vigorously contesting countries that wish to do us harm. Very simply it is called America First!'
Khashoggi lived in the United States, writing opinion articles for The Washington Post that were critical of the crown prince and Riyadh's involvement in the long-running Yemen conflict.
His editor at the newspaper, Karen Attiah, described Trump's statement as 'full of lies and a blatant disregard for his own intelligence agencies. It also shows an unforgivable disregard for the lives of Saudis who dare criticize the regime. This is a new low.'
A Saudi prosecutor cleared the crown prince of wrongdoing last week while calling for the death penalty for five men, among the 11 indicted in the case. The prosecutor said a total of 21 people had been detained in connection with the killing.
Germany's foreign minister said Monday that Berlin will ban 18 Saudi nationals from entering Europe's border-free Schengen zone because of their alleged links to Khashoggi's killing. Heiko Maas said he had consulted with France and Britain before announcing the ban.
FILE - President Donald Trump walks with Saudi King Salman at the Gulf Cooperation Council Summit, at the King Abdulaziz Conference Center, May 21, 2017, in Riyadh. Despite reported CIA findings that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman personally ordered the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Trump maintains that Saudi Arabia is a 'great ally in our very important fight against Iran.'
'There are more questions than answers in this case, with the crime itself and who is behind it,' Mass said on the sidelines of a European Union meeting in Brussels.
Trump has said he has been fully briefed on an audio recording of the killing of the dissident Saudi journalist, but has no intention of listening to it because of the violence it depicts.
'It's a suffering tape. It's a terrible tape,' Trump told Fox News in a White House interview last Friday.
'It's very violent, very vicious and terrible,' Trump said.
Asked in the Fox interview if the crown prince lied to him about his involvement, Trump replied, 'I don't know. Who can really know?' adding, 'He told me that he had nothing to do with it. He told me that, I would say, maybe five times at different points, as recently as a few days ago.'
Fox interviewer Chris Wallace asked Trump whether he would go along with moves in Congress to cut off U.S. involvement in the Saudi-led war in Yemen or halt arms sales to Riyadh.
Trump equivocated, saying, 'I want to see Yemen end. It takes two to tango and Iran has to end also. I want Saudi to stop, but I want Iran to stop also.'
Khashoggi, who lived in the U.S. and wrote opinion columns for The Washington Post that were critical of the crown prince, was killed at the Saudi consulate while he was trying to get documents for his planned marriage to a Turkish woman.
Turkish officials concluded that he was tortured and killed, with his body then dismembered.
VOA's Chris Hannas contributed to this report.