By Julia Harte and Timothy Gardner
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump said on Saturday the United States would be “punishing” itself by halting military sales to Saudi Arabia even if it is proven that Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was killed inside the country’s consulate in Istanbul.
Khashoggi, a prominent critic of Riyadh and a U.S. resident, disappeared on Oct. 2 after visiting the Saudi consulate. Turkey’s government believes he was deliberately killed inside the building and his body removed.
Trump has forged closer ties with Saudi Arabia and is under international and domestic pressure to help determine what happened to Khashoggi and punish Saudi Arabia if investigations show its government had him killed.
Republican and Democratic lawmakers alike have demanded firm action. There was already mounting concern over civilian deaths caused by a Saudi-led military coalition in Yemen’s civil war and some lawmakers have said Washington should block military sales to Riyadh if the allegations over Khashoggi are proven.
But Trump is firmly opposed.
“I actually think we’d be punishing ourselves if we did that,” Trump told reporters at the White House.
“There are other things we can do that are very, very powerful, very strong and we’ll do them,” he added, without saying what those measures might be.
Under U.S. law, major foreign military sales can be blocked by Congress. An informal review process lets key lawmakers use a practice known as a “hold” to stall deals if they have concerns such as whether the weapons being supplied would be used to kill civilians.
Major U.S. defense contractors, including Lockheed Martin Corp
Trump said on Saturday his administration won a $110 billion military order from Saudi Arabia and that the deal, combined with Saudi commitments to invest heavily in the United States, was worth hundreds of thousands of U.S. jobs.
“If they don’t buy it from us, they’re going to buy it from Russia or they’re going to buy it from China,” he said. “Think of that, $110 billion. All they’re going to do is give it to other countries, and I think that would be very foolish.”
It was unclear what specific measures, if any, Trump is considering against Saudi Arabia, which is the world’s largest oil exporter, and one of his top allies.
The Trump administration plans to reimpose sanctions on oil exports from Iran on Nov. 5 and Trump has urged Saudi Arabia to boost oil output to help make up for the loss.
Trump said he would probably speak to Saudi Arabia’s King Salman over the weekend “because I think it’s appropriate for me to ask him what’s going on.”
(Reporting by Julia Harte and Timothy Gardner; Editing by Kieran Murray and Marguerita Choy)