But his comments are missing the mark on a key fact: Saudi Arabia has so far only followed through on $14.5 billion in purchases.
The deal brokered last year between the US and Saudi Arabia was merely a memorandum of intent to fulfill nearly $110 billion in arms sales over the next 10 years. As of yet, Saudi Arabia has only signed letters of offer and acceptance — official purchase agreements that have either already been approved by Congress or in the process of being approved — for $14.5 billion in purchases, according to a Pentagon official.
Despite those facts, the President cited the economic and jobs benefits of the $110 billion investment as a reason not to touch the deal as part of any US-imposed consequences for Saudi Arabia’s role in the disappearance and alleged murder of the Saudi journalist, Jamal Khashoggi.
Even as he promised the US is taking the allegations “very seriously,” Trump said Thursday he is wary of imposing economic sanctions on the Gulf kingdom, citing the $110 billion agreement.
“I know they’re talking about different kinds of sanctions, but they’re spending $110 billion on military equipment and on things that create jobs, like jobs and others, for this country,” Trump said. “I don’t like the concept of stopping an investment of $110 billion into the United States. Because you know what they’re going to do? They’re going to take that money and spend it in Russia or China, or someplace else.”
Trump suggested there “other things we can do” to impose consequences on Saudi Arabia, but he did not specify what alternative sanctions would look like. And US officials have been cautious in their comments about Khashoggi.
The US has yet to back Turkey’s assessment that Khashoggi was killed by at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, even as Turkey has provided evidence that Khashoggi entered the consulate and never exited. Saudi Arabia has denied the allegations, but has yet to provide any evidence that Khashoggi left the consulate or is alive.
Turkish officials have also told US officials they have audio and video recordings that show Khashoggi was killed inside the Saudi consulate, according to The Washington Post.
While Trump indicated on Thursday that canceling arms sales to Saudi Arabia is off the table, he is facing mounting bipartisan pressure from members of Congress who are calling for Trump to impose stiff consequences on Saudi Arabia.
The $110 billion agreement included Saudi Arabian pledges to purchase tanks, fighter jets, combat ships and a sophisticated missile defense system, known as THAAD — some of which Saudi Arabia has wanted to purchase for years.
Saudi purchases of American weapons are nothing new, though. The kingdom has long promised to purchase more US arms than their forces can possibly absorb and make use of as they have sought to buy influence in the US.
Saudi Arabia’s longstanding investments in US weapons, spare parts and logistical equipment have resulted in a steady stream of money for US defense contractors.
Even though much of the pledged purchases have yet to come to fruition, Trump has repeatedly hailed the agreement as a marker of his dealmaking abilities and his efforts to boost US manufacturing. He has also played up the cost of US military support for the Saudi regime to its leadership, seeking to generate an even greater financial windfall from the regime.
Much of the deal was also personally negotiated by Jared Kushner, the President’s son-in-law and senior adviser, who has forged a close relationship with Mohammad bin Salman, known as MBS, the Saudi crown prince.
Kushner served as a go-between for Saudi officials and defense industry executives, including personally phoning Lockheed Martin CEO Marillyn Hewson to ask her to cut the price of the THAAD missile defense system for the Saudis to purchase it.
Ultimately, there is much more riding on how the US responds to the alleged killing of Khashoggi than a multi-billion dollar arms deal.
US officials and allies are looking to the White House to take a firm stance against what appears to be a brazen human rights violation and effort to silence dissent of the current Saudi regime.
But the White House has also staked much of its agenda in the Middle East on the growing partnership with Saudi Arabia and the MBS’ new leadership. The US rapprochement with Saudi Arabia is playing out in the field of counterterrorism across the Middle East, the increasingly hardline posture the US has taken against Iran and even the administration’s efforts — led by Kushner — to broker Israeli-Palestinian peace.