Trump stresses Saudi Arabia response to Navy base attack
President Donald Trump’s support for Saudi Arabia in the wake of a deadly shooting by a Saudi national at a Florida naval base is underscoring the latitude Trump gives the Kingdom’s rulers, even as Congress has pushed to limit the ties between Washington and Riyadh.
The December 6 attack on a military base in the Florida panhandle — a political stronghold for the President — raises questions about whether Trump will feel any political fallout as Florida Republicans warn Saudi Arabia not to interfere in investigations and call for a review of foreigners training on US bases.
Also in question: the extent to which Saudi Arabia will help with the investigation.
The FBI is presuming the attack, which killed three US young servicemembers, was an act of terrorism, a word the President has yet to use, though he has tweeted about Saudi condolences and promises of cooperation.
Speaking at the White House the day after, Trump said Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud had told him they “are devastated,” and that the King would be involved “in taking care of the families.” The President promised that “we will get to the bottom” of what happened.
It’s not the first time the President has come to Saudi Arabia’s defense. His remarks echoed his approach after the killing of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi. That premeditated murder was conducted by members of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s inner circle and US intelligence services have linked it to the prince himself.
The Florida attack took place Friday when Mohammed Alshamrani, a second lieutenant in the Royal Saudi Air Force and a student naval flight officer, opened fire in a classroom building on the navy base. The 21-year-old, one of 852 Saudis in the US for Defense Department security cooperation training, was killed after two deputies exchanged gunfire with him.
In the aftermath, the manner and speed of Trump’s reaction raised eyebrows.
“It is really remarkable how he has gone out of his way to defend the Saudis,” said Bruce Riedel, a former CIA official who now directs the Brookings Intelligence Project. Riedel, who wrote a 2017 book on Saudi-US ties since the 1930s, said of the Kingdom’s rulers that “so far they haven’t had to do anything because the President has been their spokesman.”
Robert Jordan, a former US ambassador to Saudi Arabia who took up that post immediately after the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, agreed. “The immediate response of the President in talking about King Salman’s condolences and expressing how heartbroken the Saudi people was was a little quick,” Jordan said. “Clearly there is a relationship between the two leaders that is something they are trying to protect.”
The White House and State Department refused to comment on whether national security adviser Robert O’Brien or Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had advised the President on how to deal with the fallout over the weekend.
Trump has consistently touted Saudi purchases of US weapons systems, ranging from helicopters to machine guns, and his close ties to the Kingdom’s rulers.
But as the FBI announced Monday morning that the investigation remains fluid and Naval Air Station Pensacola shifted back to routine access, some Florida Republicans were making clear they had no interest in protecting the relationship.
Florida Sen. Rick Scott repeated his calls Monday for the administration to suspend military training programs for “foreign nationals on American soil” pending a full review.
The day after the shooting, stalwart Trump supporter Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida tweeted that he’d told the Saudi ambassador “in the strongest possible terms that we expect to conduct our investigation w full cooperation & no interference from the Kingdom.”
And in the tense hours after the attack on Friday afternoon, Florida’s Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis said, “There’s obviously going to be a lot of questions about this individual being a foreign national, being a part of the Saudi Air Force and then to be here training on our soil.”
Democrats in Congress — and some Republicans, such as Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul and South Carolina’s Sen. Lindsey Graham — have long pushed for Saudi Arabia to be held accountable for the Khashoggi killing and repeated reports of human rights violations in Yemen, where Riyadh is fighting Iranian-backed militants.
In September, Trump vetoed bipartisan efforts to block “emergency” sales of weapons to the Kingdom.
Some analysts don’t think Friday’s killing of US troops will change the President’s impulse to protect Saudi Arabia.
“Yes the US-Saudi Arabia relationship is badly strained in Congress … but I don’t see this incident altering the margin for error and the latitude this administration continues to give to Saudi Arabia,” said Aaron David Miller, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Foundation.
A former White House official said Trump has clearly been getting bad advice on Saudi Arabia. This official said the President’s initial statements should have emphasized a focus is on the families of those killed and the longstanding intelligence relationship Washington has with Riyadh.
“He probably focused on how badly the Saudis felt because that is the last thing he heard in the conversation,” this former official said. “And the President is aware that because of the Khashoggi incident everything that the US does with the Saudis is under the microscope.” That would drive his desire to make sure Americans know the Saudis “came out with an outpouring of support on this.”
The former official added that Trump “is favorable towards the Saudis, but I can’t say it is because of personal economic reasons or if it is because he is thinking we don’t know anything right now and these guys are getting a ton of heat.”
An inclination to ‘do the minimum’
Alshamrani’s motive is still undetermined, but the FBI knows he purchased his gun legally and investigators want to know more about a trip he made back to Saudi Arabia earlier this year.
On Sunday, the Saudi prince called Trump to reiterate the Kingdom’s “absolute cooperation” with the US on the investigation, officials said. And on Monday, a high-ranking Saudi defense attaché was traveling to Pensacola to meet with US officials.
But a person familiar with the case said tension between the countries is rising over the fact that up to a dozen remaining Saudi military students in Pensacola have had their movements restricted to the base. And experts say history indicates there won’t likely be much real cooperation.
“The natural Saudi inclination will be to get any Saudi who could be linked up in this — the classmates of this guy — to get them out of the United States as quickly as possible and do the minimum — provide rank and serial number,” Riedel said. “They tend to be very jealous about sharing information about Saudi citizens.”
Referring to the terrorist attack on a Saudi housing complex where US and coalition forces were living in 1996, Riedel said, “That’s how they acted in the Khobar Towers, that’s how they acted in 9/11 — they were very reluctant to provide information.”
“There is a tendency of denial,” said Jordan, the former ambassador, of the Saudis. When Jordan first arrived in the country, King Salman, then the governor of Riyadh, insisted no Saudis were involved in the 9/11 attacks and that Israel was behind them. Fifteen out of the 19 attackers were Saudi.
“I think the more recent history of the Khashoggi murder is further instruction on this,” Jordan continued, alluding to the lack of cooperation surrounding the journalist’s death. “They are going to be very reluctant to air any dirty laundry with the US or the public… We need to find out what happened when this guy went home for vacations. That is going to be very difficult.”
CNN’s David Shortell, Maegan Vazquez, Nic Robertson, Julia Jones, Scott Glover, Whitney Wild, Shimon Prokupecz, Josh Campbell contributed to this report