President Donald Trump on Thursday disputed that U.S. intelligence officials had concluded that the de facto leader of American ally Saudi Arabia ordered the killing of a U.S.-based journalist critical of the kingdom's royal family.
Citing vehement denials by the crown prince and king that they were involved, Trump said "maybe the world should be held accountable because the world is a vicious place. The world is a very, very vicious place."
Critics in Congress and high-ranking officials in other countries are accusing Trump of ignoring human rights and giving Saudi Arabia a pass for economic reasons, including its influence on the world oil market.
Trump said this week he would not impose harsher penalties on Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman over the death and dismemberment of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul last month.
"My policy is very simple: America first, keep America great again and that's what I'm doing," Trump told reporters after a Thanksgiving Day telephone call with members of the military.
The crown prince and his father, King Salman, said they did not commit "this atrocity," Trump said.
"It's a terrible thing. I dislike it more than you do. But the fact is ... they create tremendous wealth, really tremendous jobs in their purchases and very importantly, they keep the oil price down."
American intelligence agencies have concluded that the crown prince ordered the killing in the Saudi Consulate in Turkey, according to a U.S. official familiar with the assessment. The official was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.
Others familiar with the case caution that while it's likely that the crown prince was involved in the death, questions remain about the extent of his culpability.
Several lawmakers have indicated that the U.S. has no "smoking gun" that proves the crown prince was responsible. They have called on the CIA and other top intelligence agencies to share publicly what they told the president about the slaying.
"I hate the crime," Trump said while on vacation in Florida. "I hate what's done. I hate the cover-up and I will tell you this — the crown prince hates it more than I do."
He said the CIA "points it both ways and as I said, maybe he did, maybe he didn't. But I will say very strongly that it's a very important ally and if we go by a certain standard, we won't be able to have allies with almost any country."
He also has pushed back on the idea that his refusal to punish the Saudis more will embolden other governments to go after journalists and commit other human rights abuses.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has noted that the U.S. has imposed sanctions on 17 Saudi officials suspected of involvement in the killing.
"We've sanctioned 17 people — some of them very senior in the Saudi government," Pompeo said Wednesday in a radio interview with KCMO in Kansas City, Missouri. "We are going to make sure that America always stands for human rights."
Saudi prosecutors have said a 15-man team sent to Istanbul killed Khashoggi with tranquilizers and dismembered his body, which has not been found. Those findings came after Saudi authorities spent weeks denying Khashoggi had been killed in the consulate.
Some lawmakers have triggered investigations into Khashoggi's death and specifically whether the crown prince was responsible. The investigations were requested under provisions of the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act.
The act requires the president to report back to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee within 120 days — in this case by Feb. 7 — on whether the crown prince was responsible for an extrajudicial killing, torture or other gross violation of internationally recognized human rights against someone exercising freedom of expression and the administration's decision on whether sanctions are warranted.