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Trump Campaigns Out West

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Saudi Arabia has confirmed that Jamal Khashoggi died while visiting the Saudi consulate in Turkey on October 2 after weeks of denials. They say some kind of fight broke out shortly after Mr. Khashoggi, who lived in Virginia and wrote columns for The Washington Post, arrived at the embassy that day to complete paperwork for his marriage. President Trump reacted yesterday and called it a very sad thing. He did not criticize the Saudis.

NPR's Don Gonyea was with the president on a campaign swing out west and joins us now. Don, thanks for being with us.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: My pleasure.

SIMON: And let's begin with the president's first comments after Saudis - the Saudis announced - they confirmed the obvious - that Mr. Khashoggi had died in their custody at the embassy in Istanbul. The president was asked about it while touring an air force base.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Well, I think it's a good first step. It's a big step. It's a lot of people - a lot of people involved. And I think it's a great first step.

SIMON: A lot of people - Trump's referring to the 18 arrests that related to the fight that the Saudis say resulted in Jamal Khashoggi's death. What else did he say on the topic?

GONYEA: Well, he took questions from reporters at a roundtable with defense industry officials at that base. He called Khashoggi's death unacceptable.

But also, right away, Scott, he pivoted to the contracts the Saudis have with U.S. companies like Boeing and General Dynamics. And as Trump spoke, seated around the table with him were CEOs from some of those companies. The president says there are Saudi contracts for arms and equipment worth $110 billion. He said he'd be working with Congress to see what the U.S. should do in response, but...

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TRUMP: But I would prefer that we don't use, as retribution, canceling $110 billion worth of work, which means 600,000 jobs.

GONYEA: And, Scott, just briefly, the president uses those numbers often. The dollar amount is exaggerated, according to fact checks, as is the number of jobs. Analysts say the real number would be just a small fraction of that.

SIMON: Did the president, Don, say anything, really, about the Saudi explanation that Jamal Khashoggi died in some kind of fight?

GONYEA: He was asked if he found that explanation credible. He said he did. He called Saudi Arabia a great ally. All of this is interesting, given how quickly in the past he has leveled very blunt criticism of other U.S. allies - closer allies - Canada, Germany - over trade and the like. Not so with the Saudis now.

SIMON: All of this comes up as the president is campaigning for Republicans in a number of Senate races that are considered too close to call in Montana, Arizona. He'll be in Nevada later today. What does the president talk about? How does he present his argument at his rallies?

GONYEA: He is really trying to get the base - his hardest-core supporters - to make sure they turn out. So he's talking about, still, the battle to confirm Justice Brett Kavanaugh. He now calls Democrats who protested Kavanaugh an unhinged angry mob. And I can tell you the rally crowds love that language.

And he talks about that caravan - that large group of refugees, mostly from Honduras, currently heading north toward the U.S. border. There's been lots of TV coverage of it, and the president clearly sees it as a political gift just before the election. This is from his rally in Arizona last night.

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TRUMP: A Democrat victory in November would be a bright, flashing invitation to every trafficker, smuggler, drug dealer and illegal alien on the planet. Come on in. Come on in, folks.

GONYEA: So that's the vibe at these rallies and in Trump's orbit, even on a day when the news is about the confirmation of the death of Jamal Khashoggi.

SIMON: NPR's Don Gonyea. Thanks very much for being with us.

GONYEA: Thank you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.