Trump says journalist Khashoggi is probably dead and consequences for Saudis must be severe if they are to blame
- Trump said it would be a ‘miracle’ if Jamal Khashoggi turned up alive
- US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin withdrew from investment conference in Riyadh, in abrupt change of tack by the White House
US President Donald Trump said on Thursday it “certainly looks” like US-based Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi is dead, and the consequences for Saudi Arabia should be “severe” if it was responsible, in an abrupt change of tack by his administration on Thursday.
Khashoggi did not reappear from the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2 where he went to collect documents for his impending marriage. Turkish officials have said they believe the journalist, a critic of Saudi rulers, was murdered inside the building and his body chopped up and removed.
“It certainly looks that way to me,” Trump told reporters at Joint Base Andrews when asked if Khashoggi was dead. “It’s very sad.”
In a separate interview with the New York Times, Trump said it would be the “miracle of all miracles” if Khashoggi was still alive.
Trump said he was waiting for details from “about three different investigations so we can get to the bottom of” Khashoggi’s disappearance.
Asked what the consequences would be if Saudi leaders were linked to his disappearance, Trump said: “Well, it’ll have to be very severe. I mean, it’s bad, bad stuff, but we’ll see what happens.”
Hours earlier, US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin withdrew from an investment conference in Riyadh as the Trump administration shifted course under increasing pressure to hold Saudi Arabia’s leaders accountable for the disappearance of Khashoggi.
Mnuchin announced his change of plans after meeting at the White House with Trump and Secretary of State Michael Pompeo, who was hastily dispatched to Saudi Arabia and Turkey on Monday.
Following a day of meetings with King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Pompeo said the Saudi leaders understood the importance of producing a quick but thorough report on Khashoggi’s fate.
The secretary of state’s trip came amid reports that the US-based journalist was ambushed within the consulate by Saudi agents, then tortured, killed and dismembered.
Saudi rulers are considering blaming a top intelligence official close to Prince Mohammed for the apparent killing, the New York Times reported, citing three unidentified people with knowledge of Saudi plans.
“We made clear to them that we take this matter with respect to Mr Khashoggi very seriously,” Pompeo told reporters at the White House after the meeting.
The Saudis agreed, he said, adding that “they also assured me that they will conduct a complete, thorough investigation of all the facts surrounding Mr Khashoggi and that they will do so in a timely fashion”.
Pompeo said that he recommended Trump give the Saudis and the Turkish government “a few more days” to investigate.
“I told President Trump this morning we ought to give them a few more days to complete that, so that we too have a complete understanding of the facts,” Pompeo said.
Only then, Pompeo said, “we can make decisions how or if the United States should respond.”
The Trump administration faces growing bipartisan outrage in Congress over Saudi Arabia’s role in Khashoggi’s disappearance. Shortly after Pompeo’s remarks, Mnuchin announced his withdrawal from the Riyadh conference.
Mnuchin had reaffirmed his plans to participate as recently as Wednesday. He announced his withdrawal hours after UK International Trade Secretary Liam Fox pulled out of the event.
Fox Business Network also said on Thursday it was withdrawing as a sponsor of the event, joining a host of media companies to drop out after the disappearance of Khashoggi.
‘Assassination team leader’ linked to prince is pictured entering consulate where journalist vanished
“Mr Khashoggi is dead,” Senator John Kennedy, a Louisiana Republican, told reporters at the Capitol, according to Voice of America News and others. “I don’t think the aliens abducted him. I don’t think he fell through a hole in the space-time continuum. I think he’s dead, and I think the Saudis killed him.”
— Steven Mnuchin (@stevenmnuchin1) October 18, 2018
While lawmakers are threatening to sanction the Saudi government, Trump, who has cultivated closer ties to the kingdom, has so far sought to downplay the incident. In his remarks on Thursday, Pompeo stressed the long alliance between the US and Saudi Arabia.
“They are an important strategic alliance of the United States and we need to be mindful of that as well,” he said.
Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and Middle East adviser, has been urging Trump to stand by Prince Mohammed, arguing that the outrage over Khashoggi’s disappearance will pass as it has over other Saudi provocations such as kidnapping the prime minister of Lebanon, the Times reported, citing two unidentified people familiar with deliberations.
Lawmakers aren’t satisfied. In a tweet shortly after Pompeo’s remarks, Republican Senator Marco Rubio of Florida said: “Must not accept a strategic alliance with #SaudiArabia which requires our silence when they butcher a political critic.”
He called for everyone responsible to be held accountable and for the US. to “be clear on what is expected moving forward if they want to preserve our alliance”.
The stark differences between Congress and the administration underscore that Saudi Arabia enjoys far greater respect in the Oval Office than in the Capitol.
Many lawmakers harbour a distrust of the kingdom dating back to its connection to the September 11 attacks. Its bloody involvement in Yemen’s civil war and interference in Lebanese politics have cost it further US support.
The Saudis, Pompeo said, assured him the investigation “will be transparent” and the results made publicly available.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told Pompeo that his government is conducting its own investigation of what happened to Khashoggi after he entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul to retrieve a document for his upcoming wedding.
“We do believe that between these two efforts a complete picture will emerge for what actually transpired here,” Pompeo said.
Khashoggi, who wrote critically about Prince Mohammed, hasn’t been seen since entering the consulate.
Turkish officials have said he was murdered and dismembered within the building by Saudi agents who were waiting for him to arrive. Saudi officials have insisted Khashoggi left unharmed, without providing any evidence of the claim.
A Turkish newspaper on Thursday published pictures it said showed a Saudi security official with links to Prince Mohammed entering the Saudi consulate hours before Khashoggi disappeared there.
Also on Thursday, Democratic senators demanded a “full accounting” from Trump and his family business of their financial ties to Saudi Arabia, signalling a likely area of scrutiny if their party wins a House or Senate majority in the November 6 election.
“It is imperative that this sanctions determination, and US policy towards Saudi Arabia generally, are not influenced by any conflicts of interest that may exist because of your or your family’s deep financial ties to Saudi Arabia,” the 11 senators wrote in their letter.
Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse and Reuters