President Trump suggested Monday that “rogue killers,” not the Saudi royal family, may be to blame for the suspected murder of Jamal Khashoggi, the Virginia-based dissident Saudi journalist, offering a possible escape hatch to the beleaguered Saudi government as it pushed back against a global furor.
After speaking by phone with Saudi Arabia’s King Salman, Trump said he was sending Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo to meet the king in Riyadh to follow up on the macabre case, which has put White House ties to the Saudi rulers in a harsh spotlight and isolated the Saudi government.
Trump said Pompeo, who left Washington shortly after noon, also may visit Turkey, where Khashoggi was last seen entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2. Turkish media reports, based in part on apparent audio recordings, have said Kashoggi was beaten to death and then dismembered in the building.
CNN later reported that Saudi officials were preparing to acknowledge that Khashoggi’s grisly death was the result of an interrogation that went wrong, one that was intended to lead to his abduction from Turkey. There was no independent confirmation, but Turkish officials quickly responded that Saudi rulers were searching for a narrative to avoid further opprobrium.
"The Saudis look like they will try to limit this to a few people and save their leadership,” said a senior Turkish official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the crisis.
Speaking to reporters on the South Lawn, Trump said King Salman had firmly denied any knowledge or involvement in Khashoggi’s fate. The king gave a similar denial to Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, on Sunday.
The calls appeared to break a bitter two-week impasse over Turkey’s demands to inspect the Saudi diplomatic compound. On Monday, Saudi officials met with Turkish police and prosecutors at police headquarters in Istanbul for about two hours, and then began making their way separately to the compound.
Before they arrived, a Turkish commercial cleaning company entered the consulate, carrying mops and buckets. A team of Turkish police investigators and forensic specialists, along with senior Turkish and Saudi officials, later followed.
The White House praised the apparent progress even as skeptics said Saudi authorities would have eliminated or removed any evidence of a bloody murder inside the consulate.
“It is essential that Turkish authorities, with full and transparent support from the government of Saudi Arabia, are able to conduct a thorough investigation and officially release the results of that investigation when concluded,” said a National Security Council spokesman who spoke on condition of anonymity to present the White House view. “We support Turkish investigators’ efforts and are not going to prejudge the outcome of the official investigation, and we stand ready to assist.”
Senior Turkish officials also have suggested rogue killers were to blame for Khashoggi’s death, in part because Erdoğan has sought to avoid a diplomatic showdown with a major regional power. But Turkish analysts said Saudi leaders were responsible, and that the only question now is how to explain it.
“Maybe it is not clear to the public,” said Wadah Khanfar, head of the Istanbul-based Al Sharq Forum think tank, who shared a panel in London with Khashoggi three days before he vanished. “But it is 100% clear to the decision makers, and now it’s a question of how much they want to push the Saudis.”
Speaking to reporters on the South Lawn, Trump said he spoke to King Salman for about 20 minutes and “he denies any knowledge of what took place with regards to, as he said, to Saudi Arabia's citizen. He firmly denies that.”
"We are going to leave nothing uncovered,” Trump said. “With that being said, the king firmly denies any knowledge of it. He didn’t really know, maybe, I don’t want to get into his mind but it sounded to me like maybe it could have been rogue killers. Who knows? We’re going to try to get to the bottom of it very soon but his was a flat denial.”
Asked if he believed the king, Trump said, “His denial to me could not have been stronger that he had no knowledge. And it sounds like he and also the crown prince had no knowledge.”
Khashoggi’s opinion columns in the Washington Post and in Arab media reportedly had antagonized the crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, who is the de facto ruler of the authoritarian Saudi state. MBS, as he is known, has largely eclipsed the 82-year-old king on the global stage and has built close ties with Trump’s senior advisor and son-in-law Jared Kushner.
The president’s credulity with the Saudi king is not the first time he has accepted a foreign leader’s version of events that contradicts a consensus on Capitol Hill, among experts on regional politics and in foreign capitals.
Trump memorably dismissed his own intelligence community's conclusions that Moscow interfered with the 2016 presidential election, accepting Russian President Vladimir Putin’s denial of any involvement during a press conference in July in Helsinki. Under intense criticism, he later said he had misspoke.
As criticism intensified over Khashoggi’s disappearance, Trump also has appeared to back down. After days of sidestepping the furor, he told “60 Minutes” in an interview broadcast Sunday that he would impose “severe punishment” if Saudi authorities were found responsible for Khashoggi’s death, without saying what that punishment might entail.
His comments prompted an immediate pushback from Riyadh, where Saudi officials warned they would respond in kind.
“The kingdom affirms its total rejection of any threats and attempts to undermine it, whether by threatening to impose economic sanctions, using political pressures, or repeating false accusations,” the Saudi state news agency quoted an unnamed official as saying. “The kingdom's economy has an influential and vital role in the global economy.”
The Saudis cited a possible cutback in oil production, a move that would drive up global energy prices. It’s not clear how long they could sustain a downturn given the kingdom’s heavy reliance on oil revenue. Thanks to recent development of shale oil reserves, the United States now imports about 11% of its oil from Saudi Arabia, a sharp decline from decades ago.
On Monday, Trump emphasized again that he will not cancel or suspend billions of dollars in arms sales to the kingdom as a clear sign of American displeasure.
Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin is still planning to attend an investment summit in Riyadh organized by the crown prince, even as scores of business leaders and media organizations from around the world have dropped out over Khashoggi’s disappearance.
The administration has invested serious political capital in its relationship with the Saudi regime. Trump, following Kushner’s advice, made Saudi Arabia his first stop on his first foreign trip as president in May 2017. Recent presidents have generally visited America’s neighbors, Canada or Mexico, before venturing further abroad.
Foreign policy and national security officials at the White House have argued that Saudi Arabia can be the linchpin for U.S. priorities in the Middle East, including constraining Iran and achieving a long-shot peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.
But earlier this year, the Saudis helped scuttle a proposal largely drafted by Kushner after it favored Israel heavily and offered few concessions to the Palestinians. The White House was reportedly stunned at the rejection.
Some lawmakers pushed back at Trump’s willingness to accept Saudi denials of responsibility.
“President Trump’s response to Jamal Khashoggi’s disappearance reveals a man more willing to trust authoritarian leaders than reliable intelligence,” Sen. Tim Kaine, Democrat of Virginia, where Khashoggi lived, said Monday on Twitter. “It’s insulting to Jamal’s family and colleagues that this is what’s coming out of the world’s most powerful office.”
Donald Trump Jr. said in tweets over the weekend, without evidence, that Khashoggi was a known sympathizer of radical groups. Official Saudi media have published stories questioning the existence of Khashoggi’s fiancee, who was outside the consulate waiting for him to come out when he entered on Oct. 2 and who first raised the alarm.
Under normal circumstances, finding evidence of dismembering a body would not be difficult, said Gareth Jenkins, an Istanbul-based security analyst with the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute and the Silk Road Studies Program.
Turkish officials have said a 15-member team that arrived in Istanbul to carry out Khashoggi’s killing included a top forensics expert, making it unlikely evidence like blood stains would still be present for investigators to find, said Jenkins.
“When it comes to things like blood stains, the Saudis would not have let the Turks inside if they were still there,” Jenkins said. “Blood stains are fairly easy to pick up, and they are fairly easy to remove as well. If the Saudis sent forensics experts, they would have been aware of how to do that. You can even learn how to do some of that just by watching some television shows.”
Stokols and Wilkinson reported from Washington. Special correspondent Umar Farooq reported from Istanbul.