Scrambling to defuse a growing diplomatic crisis, Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo held hastily arranged talks Tuesday with the rulers of Saudi Arabia but they failed to ease growing suspicions that a Virginia-based Saudi journalist was brutally killed on their orders.
Pompeo did not report any breakthrough following his meetings in Riyadh with Saudi King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the country’s de facto ruler. President Trump later tweeted that he also spoke with the crown prince by phone and that answers “will be forthcoming shortly,” but he provided no details.
Trump later compared the accusations over the suspected killing and dismemberment of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Saudi Arabia's own consulate to the sexual assault allegations that sparked a bitter national debate and nearly derailed confirmation of his Supreme Court nominee.
"Here we go again with, you know, you're guilty until proven innocent,” Trump told the Associated Press in an interview. “I don't like that. We just went through that with Justice Kavanaugh and he was innocent all the way as far as I'm concerned. So we have to find out what happened.”
Trump’s pushback came as America’s closest strategic and military ally in the Arab world continued to deny any knowledge or role in the disappearance of Khashoggi, a prominent critic of the autocratic government, after he entered the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, two weeks ago.
Turkish officials have said they have audio and video evidence that provides grisly details of the journalist’s fate after he walked into the walled compound about 1:15 p.m. on Oct. 2 in an effort to get documents for his planned marriage to a Turkish woman this month.
According to the officials, Khashoggi was asked to wait in the office of the Saudi consul general. Two men then entered the room, a struggle ensued and Khashoggi was dragged into a second room, they said. Khashoggi was interrogated and killed there, the officials said, and his body then was dismembered with a saw in a third room.
Later the same afternoon, the officials said, they believe Khashoggi’s body was moved in a diplomatic van to the Saudi consul general’s home, and possibly was buried in the garden there. The Saudi diplomat, Mohammad Otaibi, left Istanbul early Tuesday on a commercial flight for Riyadh as Turkish police made plans to search his home and vehicles.
A Turkish crime scene investigation unit, as well as forensic specialists in the anti-terrorism branch, subsequently entered the Saudi Consulate, as well as the consul general’s residence. The Turkish attorney general’s office told reporters that the team found evidence that Khashoggi was killed in the consulate, and that they had taken soil samples from the garden.
Turkish investigators had conducted a nine-hour search of the consulate on Monday night, but they quickly discovered that the building’s interior walls had been painted over since Khashoggi vanished, hampering their ability to collect evidence, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told reporters in Ankara.
“I hope we can get results to allow us to form an opinion as soon as possible, because the investigation is looking into many things, including toxic materials and those materials were removed by painting over them,” Erdogan said.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, who will meet with Pompeo in Ankara on Wednesday, said some Saudi officials may be questioned as part of the investigation.
Trump ordered Pompeo to leave immediately for Saudi Arabia and Turkey on Monday to try to defuse the crisis, which has slammed the brakes on a series of regional initiatives and plans that are critical to the White House, including cutting off Iran’s oil exports, and searching for an Israeli-Palestinian peace plan.
Pompeo told reporters Tuesday that he had "direct and candid" conversations with the Saudi king, crown prince and foreign minister. He said he "emphasized the importance of conducting a thorough, transparent and timely" investigation by the Saudi public prosecutor.
"The Saudi leadership pledged to deliver precisely on that," he said.
"My assessment from these meetings is that there is serious commitment to determine all the facts and ensure accountability, including accountability for Saudi Arabia's senior leaders or senior officials," Pompeo said.
Publicly, Pompeo and his hosts looked calm and friendly when they met Tuesday. At one point, as they greeted each other, Prince Mohammed noted the two countries were important allies.
“Absolutely,” Pompeo said, smiling.
On Monday, Trump suggested that “rogue killers,” not the Saudi royal family, may have carried out the slaying. Critics quickly said that Trump was providing an excuse for the Saudi leaders, and participating in a cover-up.
Saudi officials later floated the idea of claiming that Khashoggi, who was 59 when he disappeared, was killed during a “botched” interrogation inside the consulate, an explanation that shielded the crown prince from responsibility.
Analysts who follow the hermetic gulf kingdom have focused their criticism, and their suspicions, on the crown prince. He has sought to portray himself as a political reformer, but he has amassed vast power since 2013 with arrests of hundreds of rivals and dissidents, threatening Saudi domestic stability and its role on the world stage.
But the Trump administration has embraced Mohammed bin Salman since he became the crown prince, drawing up contracts for $110 billion in military arms sales to the kingdom, and providing material and logistical assistance in its disastrous war in neighboring Yemen.
The crown prince also has persuaded the Trump administration to take its side in a bitter squabble with Qatar, home to the largest U.S. military base in the region. Turkey, a NATO ally, supports Qatar in the dispute.
For his backing of Saudi Arabia, Trump has found a partner for his approach in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. When Trump moved the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in May, drawing outrage from much of the Muslim world, including Turkey, Saudi Arabia issued a restrained statement.
The current crisis has put those broader goals at risk, and the White House has scrambled to find a face-saving solution for the Saudi rulers.
Trump said Sunday that he would impose “severe punishment” if proof emerges that Saudi rulers sanctioned the killing of Khashoggi, who wrote opinion pieces for the Washington Post, but he has not said what that would entail. He has ruled out canceling or suspending billions of dollars in arms deals with the oil-rich country.
Trump’s renewed defense Tuesday of the crown prince suggested he is determined to salvage the fraught relationship and Mohammed himself. Several experts said it was unlikely the crisis would bring fundamental change to the Saudi-U.S. political and strategic alliance.
“It is clear Trump’s interest is in not putting the blame on Mohammed bin Salman,” said Randa Slim, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington. “The question is if he continues to stick by [the crown prince], will he ask a price — and what will it be?”
The administration’s hopes for a realignment in the Middle East largely rest on Saudi support. Trump’s diplomacy in the region has been led by his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who has forged close political ties with the crown prince.
“It’s very difficult when you put all your eggs in one basket, and the basket breaks,” said Imad Harb, an analyst at the Arab Center Washington DC, a nonpartisan think tank.
Shadi Hamid, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution think tank in Washington, said there was rising concern that the United States, Saudi Arabia and Turkey would join forces to “sweep this under the rug, basically sacrificing Jamal Khashoggi and the truth for their own mutual interests.”
Turkey has economic interests, as well as strategic goals in a volatile region, in keeping ties with Saudi Arabia intact. More than half a million Saudi tourists visit Turkey each year, and Saudis make up the largest segment of real estate investors from the gulf in Turkey.
In the final calculus, Hamid said, Saudi Arabia holds the weakest hand in the current crisis. Turkey’s economy is tumbling, but it is far less dependent on oil than Saudi Arabia’s, and if Washington were to decide to punish Riyadh, it could do so with little blowback.
“Saudi Arabia needs the U.S. much more than the U.S. needs Saudi Arabia,” he said. “The Saudi armed forces would be grounded in short order if the U.S. decided to use that leverage, and even cutting off oil exports might cause ripples in the oil market, but it’s not going to have a serious impact on the U.S. economy.”
Special correspondent Farooq contributed from Istanbul.