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Why Trump Has Continued His Defense Of Saudi Crown Prince


President Trump is sticking to his defense of Saudi Arabia's crown prince even after news that the CIA believes the royal approved the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Yesterday Trump told Chris Wallace of Fox News that the crown prince has assured him he's innocent.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: He told me that he had nothing to do with it. He told me that, I would say, maybe five times at different points...

CHRIS WALLACE: But what if he's lying?

TRUMP: ...As recently as a few days ago.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Jackie Northam reports on why Trump continues to back the prince.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: From his early days in the White House, President Trump has claimed Saudi Arabia and its crown prince, Mohammed Bin Salman, is important friends and allies. The Saudis laid out a royal welcome for the president on his first overseas trip in office. And it's paid off, especially for the crown prince. President Trump has deflected criticism of the powerful young heir to the throne, giving him his full support even as evidence mounts he was involved with the death of Jamal Khashoggi.

RACHEL BRONSON: It's a rookie mistake, if you will, on the part of the Trump administration.

NORTHAM: Rachel Bronson is the author of the book "Thicker Than Oil: America's Uneasy Partnership With Saudi Arabia." She says Trump made the relationship with the kingdom all about the crown prince rather than about an alliance with the country.

BRONSON: The difficult situation that the Trump administration finds itself in is they bet on a person. And they got very over their skis, if you will, in backing the crown prince. They decided he was their guy rather than deciding that the U.S.-Saudi relationship was most important. And that's what's now putting the U.S. administration in a very difficult position 'cause they've bet on this guy.

NORTHAM: Daniel Byman, a specialist in Middle East security at the Brookings Institution, says he's not surprised Trump is continuing to defend the crown prince against a growing international chorus of criticism, including from Congress.

DANIEL BYMAN: He's touted him as a partner for peace, as a partner against Iran. And the president himself seems to be very much someone who sees the world as divided between those on his side and those against him. And so the crown prince is seen as someone in his corner. And as a result, the president is very reluctant to criticize him or turn his back on him.

NORTHAM: Byman says the broader issue is how Trump treats intelligence, such as that provided by the CIA. Byman says no president likes to have intelligence that disagrees with his policies.

BYMAN: But this is really extreme. So whether it is Saudi Arabia or whether it was Russia in the past, Trump was simply saying, I refuse to believe what I disagree with. And that's incredibly frustrating for those of us who want an informed foreign policy.

NORTHAM: Byman says if you are going to tell a president bad news, you better have solid evidence assembled. The thing with the Khashoggi case is there is no so-called smoking gun yet. The president can likely find cover with that and continue to back the crown prince. Daniel Benjamin is a counter-terrorism specialist at Dartmouth College.

DANIEL BENJAMIN: The whole thing is mystifying. There hasn't been a sober assessment of our interests here. And I think that we are damaging our own reputation by not stepping up to the plate. We also have an awful lot of leverage at this time, and we don't appear to be using any of it. And that's disappointing and surprising from the master of the deal.

NORTHAM: President Trump says his administration will get a full report Tuesday about Khashoggi's death. He gave no details whether it would be made public. Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington.


Jackie Northam is NPR's International Affairs Correspondent. She is a veteran journalist who has spent three decades reporting on conflict, geopolitics, and life across the globe - from the mountains of Afghanistan and the desert sands of Saudi Arabia, to the gritty prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and the pristine beauty of the Arctic.