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Trump contradicts CIA assessment that Saudi crown prince ordered Khashoggi killing

President Trump on Thursday contradicted the CIA’s assessment that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman had ordered the killing of Washington Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi.
Manuel Balce Ceneta/Associated Press
President Trump on Thursday contradicted the CIA’s assessment that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman had ordered the killing of Washington Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi.

PALM BEACH, Fla. — President Trump on Thursday contradicted the CIA’s assessment that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman had ordered the killing of Washington Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi, insisting that the agency had ‘‘feelings’’ but did not firmly place blame for the death.

Trump, in defiant Thanksgiving Day remarks to reporters from his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida, defended his continued support for Mohammed in the face of a CIA assessment that the crown prince had ordered the killing.

‘‘He denies it vehemently,’’ Trump said of the crown prince. Trump said his own conclusion was that ‘‘maybe he did, maybe he didn’t.’’

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‘‘I hate the crime, I hate the coverup. I will tell you this: The crown prince hates it more than I do, and they have vehemently denied it,’’ Trump said.

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Asked who should be held accountable for the death of Khashoggi, who was killed at the Saudi Consulate in Turkey on Oct. 2, Trump again refused to place blame.

‘‘Maybe the world should be held accountable because the world is a very, very vicious place,’’ the president said.

He seemed to suggest that all US allies were guilty of the same behavior, declaring that if the others were held to the standard that critics have held Saudi Arabia to in recent days, ‘‘we wouldn’t be able to have anyone for an ally.’’

Trump also threatened to close the southern border if he decided that officials in Mexico had lost control of security there, again wielding the presence of the migrant caravan in Tijuana as fodder for his call for an immigration crackdown, including a possible government shutdown if Congress does not fund his border wall. The migrants are waiting at the border to make asylum claims.

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“When they lose control of the border on the Mexico side,” he said, “we’ll just close the border.”

Returning to a recurring pre-election theme, the president warned the nation about threats he said were being posed by a caravan of people seeking eventual asylum in the United States.

He told reporters that he had shut down ‘‘parts of the border’’ because of ‘‘rioting on the other side’’ and that he was prepared to do so again. It was not clear what he meant.

He also said that he had ‘‘given the OK’’ for US troops to use lethal force against anyone crossing the border who represented a threat. US military forces are typically not allowed to take such actions, and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has already signaled his disinclination to change that policy.

Separately, Trump struck an unusually political tone in calls to members of all five branches of the military to wish them happy holidays.

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‘‘You probably see over the news what’s happening on our southern border,’’ Trump told one Air Force brigadier general stationed at Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan, adding: ‘‘I don’t have to even ask you. I know what you want to do, you want to make sure that you know who we’re letting in.’’

And throughout, Trump was sure to congratulate himself, telling the officers that the country is doing exceptionally well on his watch.

‘‘I hope that you’ll take solace in knowing that all of the American families you hold so close to your heart are all doing well,’’ he said. ‘‘The nation’s doing well economically, better than anybody in the world.’’ He later told reporters, ‘‘Nobody’s done more for the military than me.’’

Indeed, asked what he was thankful for this Thanksgiving, Trump cited his ‘‘great family,’’ as well as himself.

‘‘I made a tremendous difference in this country,’’ he said. ‘‘This country is so much stronger now than it was when I took office and you wouldn’t believe it and when you see it, we’ve gotten so much stronger people don’t even believe it.’’

The president’s televised holiday phone call with US military officers was meant to deflect criticism he has faced for not yet visiting a war zone, as previous presidents have done. He seemed to hint he would visit soldiers.

Yet if the Thanksgiving morning activity was meant to allay one political firestorm, Trump’s remarks on Khashoggi only inflamed another.

Time and again, the president has sided with Saudi officials and their explanations of the events leading to the killing, rather than with his own country’s intelligence community.

Trump sided anew against the CIA on Thursday, noting that in Saudi Arabia ‘‘at the top level they say they did not commit this atrocity.’’

Again on Thursday, Trump indicated that the ally’s economic contributions weighed on him more than the death of a US resident.

‘‘Do people really want me to give up hundreds of thousands of jobs?’’ he asked when pressed about whether Saudi Arabia’s actions deserved a stiff penalty. Again, he credited the nation for a drop in oil prices.

He alluded to the close relationship that Mohammed had forged with Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner over the course of the administration. The two have repeatedly talked as part of Kushner’s Middle Eastern portfolio.

‘‘Till this happened, there were a lot of people saying a lot of good things about the crown prince,’’ Trump said.

Trump continued for a second day his dispute with Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. over the judgments of the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

In a rare public statement, Roberts on Wednesday had defended the nation’s judges, saying that an independent judiciary was critical to the nation.

Trump opened Thanksgiving morning with tweets critical of the appellate court.

‘‘Justice Roberts can say what he wants, but the 9th Circuit is a complete & total disaster. It is out of control, has a horrible reputation, is overturned more than any Circuit in the Country,’’ he tweeted, repeating a falsehood he has often leveled at the court.

Talking to reporters later, Trump said he liked and respected Roberts but added that ‘‘I think we need to use some common sense.’’ He escalated his criticism of the appellate court, saying that ‘‘we’re going to have to stop that somehow.’’

Also Thursday, Trump stopped to deliver sandwiches at a Coast Guard station in Riviera Beach, Florida — for the second year in a row he celebrated the flourishing “brand” of the military branch — before an afternoon at his West Palm Beach golf course.

Material from the New York Times and the Associated Press was used in this report.