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News Brief: Trump Defends Saudi Arabia, Miss. Senate Runoff

23 hours ago
Originally published on November 21, 2018 5:23 am
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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The killing of a journalist by Saudi Arabia's government poses a basic problem.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The CIA found that the Saudi crown prince personally approved the killing. That's according to a person briefed on the matter. But Saudi Arabia is a key U.S. ally. And when President Trump spoke yesterday, he dismissed his own agency's findings on the crown prince's involvement.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Maybe he did; maybe he didn't. They did not make that assessment. The CIA has looked at it. They've studied it a lot.

MARTIN: In a written statement, the president added some unfounded allegations against Jamal Khashoggi. He said Saudi leaders considered the journalist a, quote, "enemy of the state." What's publicly known is only that Khashoggi wrote articles critical of the Saudi government in The Washington Post.

INSKEEP: NPR White House correspondent Scott Horsley is covering all this.

Scott, good morning.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: I do have to note, the Saudis are U.S. allies. The United States has cut them a break in many ways over the years. Would any U.S. president have to end up giving the Saudi leadership some space here?

HORSLEY: Well, you're right, Steve. This is an alliance that goes back for decades. But under the Trump administration, it has really been put on steroids. Remember - the president's first foreign trip was to Riyadh, and the Saudis flattered President Trump by projecting his face on the side of a building. He has really put Saudi Arabia at the heart of his Middle East strategy. Whereas former President Obama tried to deemphasize the Saudis and made diplomatic overtures to Iran, Trump has gone 180 degrees in the opposite direction. He has championed the Saudis at the expense of Iran - and not just the Saudis but the volatile crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman.

INSKEEP: OK. So how is that...

HORSLEY: The president's son-in-law Jared Kushner has a personal relationship with the prince - who's another brash, wealthy man in his 30s. And the president has also been, you know, overt in the transactional nature of this relationship - talking about the Saudis keeping the oil taps open and emphasizing their big U.S. arms sales.

INSKEEP: Well, let's talk about that part of that in the president's statement. What did he say about the Saudis when reaffirming his support for their government despite the murder, which he did call terrible?

HORSLEY: Well, as he often does, he exaggerated the value of those arms purchases that the Saudis make from the U.S., as well as the ease with which the Saudis could take their business elsewhere. He talked about the Saudis keeping the oil markets well-supplied. Of course, one reason that's a challenge is Trump's decision to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal and effectively take Iranian oil off the market. He did not talk about the potential costs on the other side. He did not address the humanitarian cost of the U.S. taking the Saudis' side in that devastating proxy war in Yemen. He didn't address the cost of his own - once again, challenging the findings of his own intelligence experts. And he didn't address, you know, the cost of sort of U.S. moral standing in turning a blind eye to a brutal killing in exchange for cheap oil and arms sales.

INSKEEP: Well, plenty of people have addressed those costs, Scott Horsley. There was bipartisan criticism of the president's statement of support for the Saudis in Congress. Democrat Adam Schiff, who's a key person on the intelligence committee, says it's inconceivable that the crown prince was not involved in this killing. Republican Lindsey Graham, who's been very, very publicly supportive of the president for quite some time now, said in this case, quote, "when we lose our moral voice, we lose our strongest asset." That's what they say. But what, if anything, can Congress do?

HORSLEY: Senator Graham said he does expect there to be a bipartisan appetite for additional sanctions against Saudi Arabia, including, he said, members of the royal family. Now, the president said he would be open to considering additional punitive measures if Congress insists. But he also says he would put that through the filter of his "America First" agenda.

INSKEEP: And there have been sanctions against some Saudi individuals.

Scott, thanks so much - really appreciate it.

HORSLEY: You're welcome, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Scott Horsley.

Now, the president's formal statement about Saudi Arabia and the killing of the journalist began with the sentence, the world is a very dangerous place! - exclamation point. He then talked not about Saudi Arabia but about Iran.

MARTIN: Yeah, leaders in Saudi Arabia, Iran and Turkey, where Jamal Khashoggi was killed, were all waiting to see how President Trump was going to respond once the CIA investigation was over. And the president has basically decided that no matter if the crown prince of Saudi Arabia was involved in the Khashoggi killing or not, he said the U.S. is going to remain a, quote, "steadfast partner" of Saudi Arabia.

INSKEEP: What do countries in and around Saudi Arabia have to say about that? NPR's Peter Kenyon is covering this from Istanbul.

Hi there, Peter.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Hey, Steve.

INSKEEP: Let's start with Iran, the country that was fiercely criticized in the president's statement about Saudi Arabia. How do they respond?

KENYON: Well, Iran's foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, has called Trump's statement shameful. He posted on Twitter that he found it bizarre for Trump to open his statement with what Zarif called the Saudi atrocities by condemning Iran for, quote, "every sort of malfeasance he can think of." Zarif then turned sarcastic. He said, wait. Why not blame Iran for the California wildfires? We didn't help rake the forest floors, after all, like they do in Finland, referring to an earlier remark by Trump. Trump, of course, has named Iran as the major threat to America in the Middle East. And Saudi Arabia is Washington's ally when it comes to confronting Iran. So at the moment, Tehran is doing what it can to seize on these difficulties seen by the Saudis.

INSKEEP: I guess we should note that Iran's foreign minister studied in the United States once upon a time and seems to continue following the news from here.

Turkey's foreign minister has also been talking about this. And let's remember: Turkey is important because this killing happened in Istanbul, Turkey. Turkey has been investigating and publicly, at least, demanding answers. And the foreign minister, who's in Washington, called the murder disgusting but has stopped short of outright condemning the Saudis. Why?

KENYON: Well, Turkey wants Washington on its side in the Khashoggi case. But there are also other things Ankara wants from the Trump administration. The foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, told reporters he has listened to the audio of Khashoggi's killing. That's where the disgusting comment came in. And Cavusoglu bluntly said, this killing shouldn't be covered up for the sake of maintaining trade ties with the Saudis, which could be taken as a direct criticism of Trump's statement, which of course emphasized those trade ties. The foreign minister of Turkey also said Ankara is not satisfied with the Saudi cooperation. He said the Saudis seem to want all the evidence Turkey's got while giving the Turks little, if any, new information.

The articles here and the pro-government media are seizing on anything they can find that points to Saudi responsibility. Today they're giving heavy play to an ABC News piece quoting an unnamed State Department official as saying it is blindingly obvious that responsibility goes right to the top, a reference to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman who effectively runs the kingdom. But Turkey, of course, as I said, has its own request. It wants a bunch of people extradited, and it's pressing those requests now at the same time.

INSKEEP: How are the Saudis responding?

KENYON: So far, they seem pretty pleased. The website of the Riyadh-based Arab News leads with a big picture of the U.S. president above the headline "Trump Vows To Remain Steadfast Partner Of Saudi Arabia." The Saudi position remains that the crown prince had nothing to do with it. And that's where things stand.

INSKEEP: Peter, thanks so much.

KENYON: Thanks, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Peter Kenyon.

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INSKEEP: The state of Mississippi has a Senate race to settle next week. It's a runoff. Nobody got more than 50 percent the first time around. One event has overshadowed this campaign. Republican Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith made a comment about attending a public hanging.

MARTIN: Yeah. She said she liked a man onstage with her so much she would sit in the front row of a public hanging with him. This obviously brought back troubling memories of Mississippi's history of lynching in the Jim Crow South. Last night, then, Hyde-Smith, who is white, had to answer for her comment at a debate with Democrat Mike Espy, a former congressman and Cabinet member who is black.

INSKEEP: NPR's Sarah McCammon was at the debate and is on the line.

Sarah, good morning.

SARAH MCCAMMON, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: How did Hyde-Smith respond?

MCCAMMON: Well, you know, she has said previously - you know, she's gotten a lot of flak for this. And she said that any suggestion that there was a negative connotation to her statement about public hanging was ridiculous. She said it was just an exaggerated expression of affection. And last night, she was asked to explain how there could be a different connotation. She said she was sorry if people found her remarks offensive.

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CINDY HYDE-SMITH: You know, for anyone that was offended for my - by my comments, I certainly apologize. There was no ill will, no intent whatsoever in my statements.

MCCAMMON: And she is going a bit farther here, Steve, than she's gone before in terms of apologizing. She's gotten a lot of heat for this. Walmart asked her to return her campaign donations as a result. And you know, in the past, she's doubled down. But this time, she did apologize to anyone offended. And I should say, there have been other controversies around Hyde-Smith. She joked about making it harder for liberals to vote. And a photo she posted on Facebook in 2014 has resurfaced, where she's seen wearing a Confederate hat, holding a rifle - and a caption that says, quote, "Mississippi history at its best."

INSKEEP: So then, last night she's onstage and sharing that stage with Mike Espy, her Democratic opponent. What was he saying about all of this?

MCCAMMON: Well, shortly before the debate, he put out an ad saying, quote, "we can't afford a senator who embarrasses us and reinforces the stereotypes we've worked so hard to overcome." And that was really the theme he struck last night onstage as well.

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MIKE ESPY: I don't know what's in your heart, but we all know what came out of your mouth. And it went viral, you know, within the first three minutes around the world. And so it's called our state harm. It's given our state another black eye that we don't need.

MCCAMMON: And in his closing statement, Espy came back to that theme and said Mississippi was not going back to yesteryear.

INSKEEP: And you can understand the argument he's making there, Sarah. You come from a heartland state, I guess we could say. I come from a heartland state. And if you're in a state like that, you don't want the rest of the country feeling - you don't want to feel like the rest of the country is looking down on you.

MCCAMMON: Or reinforcing stereotypes, right.

INSKEEP: Exactly, exactly. Does this make the race potentially competitive for Democrats?

MCCAMMON: Well, this is still Mississippi, a really red state. And I should say, lots of other issues came up like health care, agriculture. But a Democrat hasn't been elected to the Senate from Mississippi since 1982. At the same time, turnout is hard to predict in a special election, especially in the middle of holiday season. There's a huge black population in Mississippi, so anything could happen, and both sides are bringing out a lot of big names to campaign for each candidate ahead of next week's runoff.

INSKEEP: Turnout will decide it here, as has been the case everywhere else in the country, I guess.

MCCAMMON: As always.

INSKEEP: Sarah, thanks - thanks very much.

MCCAMMON: Yeah, thank you.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Sarah McCammon. She is in Jackson, Miss.

(SOUNDBITE OF DECEPTIKON'S "INACCESSIBILITY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.