By Jason Lange
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. President Donald Trump said in an interview that aired on Sunday the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was "very vicious" but that he wants to stick with Saudi Arabia as a close ally in the Middle East.
Under pressure to punish Saudi Arabia for Khashoggi's death inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2, Trump questioned the alleged role of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is known as MbS and is the kingdom's de facto ruler.
"He told me that he had nothing to do with it," Trump said in an interview with "Fox News Sunday", adding that "many people" also said the crown prince had no knowledge of the killing.
The interview was taped on Friday, hours before government sources said the CIA had briefed the Trump administration on the murder and its belief that MbS ordered it.
Trump said on Saturday that the CIA assessment was "very premature" and in the interview that aired on Sunday he said it may never be possible to know who ordered Khashoggi's murder.
"Well, will anybody really know?" he said.
"He did have certainly people that were reasonably close to him and close to him that were probably involved ... But at the same time we do have an ally and I want to stick with an ally that in many ways has been very good."
Trump faces intense pressure from senior Democratic and Republican lawmakers to take tougher action against Saudi Arabia. Some have said the United States should suspend arms sales to the kingdom and drop his support for MbS, but Trump has so far resisted that pressure.
The U.S. government on Thursday imposed economic sanctions on 17 Saudi officials for their alleged role in the killing, but the sanctions did not target the Saudi government.
Saudi Arabia is a major oil supplier and a close ally of the United States in countering Iranian power in the Middle East.
Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, a close ally of Trump, said on Sunday he had no doubt about MbS' involvement in ordering the murder of Khashoggi.
"They are an important ally but when it comes to the crown prince, he's irrational, he's unhinged and I think he's done a lot of damage to the relationship (between) the United States and Saudi Arabia. And I have no intention of working with him ever again," he said on NBC's "Meet the Press."
Trump said his administration has a taped recording related to the Khashoggi murder, provided by the Turkish government, but that he has not listened to it and does not want to.
"I know everything that went on in the tape without having to hear it," he said. "It was very violent, very vicious and terrible."
(Reporting by Jason Lange; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)