It took 18 days of unrelenting world pressure and media scrutiny, stoked by a drip-feed of leaks from Turkish authorities, for Saudi Arabia to admit to the death of missing Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at its consulate in Istanbul.
But Riyadh’s cryptically worded statements, released in quick succession early Saturday morning, did little to answer questions surrounding Khashoggi’s violent end, even as they deflected blame from Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, the de facto leader of the oil-rich country and the main target of Khashoggi’s criticisms.
Turkish officials on Saturday vowed to continue the investigation.
“Turkey will uncover whatever happened. No one should have doubts about that,” said Omer Celik, spokesman of the ruling Justice and Development Party, in a statement to Anadolu, Turkey’s state-run international news agency, adding that determining what happened had become a “matter of honor.”
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Celik said, was “determined to solve the case by all means.”
“We are not accusing anyone in advance but we don’t accept a cover-up.”
Preliminary investigations by the Saudi government — based on information given by Turkish authorities to a Saudi security team — showed that 18 individuals, all of them Saudi citizens, had come to meet Khashoggi in Istanbul to discuss the possibility of him returning to Saudi Arabia, according to a statement released early Saturday by the state-run Saudi Press Agency.
The encounter between Khashoggi and the men suspected of killing him escalated into a fist fight and Khashoggi’s death, “and the [suspects’] attempt to conceal and cover what happened,” according to the statement.
“The kingdom expresses its deep regret at the painful developments… and stresses the commitment of the authorities to bring the facts to the public,” continued the statement, adding that those involved would be held accountable and put on trial in Saudi Arabia.
Later, Saudi Justice Minister Mohammed Samaani said in a statement to the press agency that the Khashoggi case “falls within the sovereignty of the kingdom” and would be dealt with in Saudi courts “after the completion of the prosecution requirements.”
There was no mention of where Khashoggi’s body was hidden. Leaked information from Turkish officials has suggested that his body may have been dismembered with a forensic bone saw.
“The Government of Saudi Arabia has shamefully and repeatedly offered one lie after another in the nearly three weeks since Jamal Khashoggi disappeared in their Istanbul consulate,” said the Washington Post’s publisher and chief executive, Fred Ryan, in a written statement. “Offering no proof, and contrary to all available evidence, they now expect the world to believe that Jamal died in a fight following a discussion. This is not an explanation; it is a cover-up. President Trump, Congress and leaders of the civilized world should demand to see verifiable evidence. The Saudis cannot be allowed to fabricate a face-saving solution to an atrocity that appears to have been directed by the highest levels of their government.”
In a phone interview with the Washington Post late Saturday, Trump criticized Saudi Arabia’s explanation for the death of Khashoggi, saying that “obviously there’s been deception, and there’s been lies.”
At the same time, Trump defended Saudi Arabia as an “incredible ally” and kept open the possibility that the crown prince did not order Saudi agents to kill Khashoggi.
“Nobody has told me he’s responsible. Nobody has told me he’s not responsible. We haven’t reached that point. I haven’t heard either way,” Trump said in the phone interview.
Earlier, when Trump suggested the Saudi explanation was credible, calling it a “great first step,” much of the rest of Washington responded with disbelief, saying the facts that have already emerged about the killing undermine the new Saudi narrative.
Visiting an Air Force Base in Arizona, Trump had said he wasn’t concerned about the inconsistencies in the royal family’s story. The new explanation followed more than two weeks of insistence by Saudi Arabia that the journalist left the consulate alive.
The president has been reluctant to criticize the Saudi king or crown prince, who is suspected of playing a role in directing the murder. Instead, he’s emphasized the two countries’ longstanding alliance and Riyadh’s pledge to buy U.S. military equipment, although he overstates the amount by tens of billions of dollars.
But the Saudi explanation for Khashoggi’s death was met with swift, bipartisan skepticism, disbelief and anger elsewhere in Washington.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) said in a statement that “the story the Saudis have told about Jamal Khashoggi’s disappearance continues to change with each passing day, so we should not assume their latest story holds water.”
He renewed the demand of a large bipartisan group of senators calling for a U.S. investigation and possible sanctions. They cite a federal law, the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, that they say requires such inquiry when leaders of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee suspect a foreign government has violated the rights of an individual expressing freedom of expression.
“They can undergo their own investigation, but the U.S. administration must make its own independent, credible determination of responsibility for Khashoggi’s murder under the Global Magnitsky investigation as required by law.”
The pressure on Trump from his own party to take a harder line on the Saudis is showing no sign of subsiding. The tension over the Khashoggi probe is putting on full display deep fissures between the White House and top Republicans over foreign policy at a politically sensitive time, with the midterm election just weeks away and the GOP in danger of losing control of at least one house in Congress. Republicans at odds with the administration are openly warning the administration that its approach is undermining the nation’s moral authority and could irreparably erode America’s global standing on issues of human rights.
“#SaudiArabia’s changing stories on #KhashoggiMurder is [sic] getting old,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) tweeted. “The latest one about a fist fight gone bad is bizarre. We must move forward with #GlobalMagnitsky investigation we requested, find out what really happened & sanction those responsible.”
Another Trump ally, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), also weighed in. “To say that I am skeptical of the new Saudi narrative about Mr. Khashoggi is an understatement,” he tweeted.
Their concerns were echoed by Democrats. Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank), the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said there was no chance that Khashoggi died while fighting with a team of Saudis.
“If Khashoggi was fighting inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, he was fighting for his life with people sent to capture or kill him,” he said in a statement.
Foreign policy analysts and former diplomats were also incredulous, and some accused Trump of going out of his way to defend Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is known by his initials MBS.
“The Trump Administration is becoming MBS’s lawyer and risking America’s values and interests in the process,” tweeted Aaron David Miller, a former U.S. envoy to the Middle East under Republican and Democratic administrations.
Over the last two weeks, Turkish police investigators have examined the Saudi consulate, the Saudi consul-general’s home as well as a forest near Istanbul.
Amnesty International called on Saudi authorities to produce Khashoggi’s body so “an autopsy can be performed by independent forensic experts,” according to a statement Saturday from Samah Hadid, the group’s Middle East director of campaigns.
“An independent investigation will be the only guarantee against what increasingly appears as a Saudi whitewash surrounding the circumstances of Khashoggi’s murder or any attempts by other governments to sweep the issue under the carpet to preserve lucrative arms deals and other business ties with Riyadh.”
That call was echoed by Khashoggi’s friends in a press conference outside the Saudi Arabian consulate on Saturday.
“Show us his body. Okay, you’ve acknowledged he died. Show us where his body is, so we can say if he had fought with someone or that he was killed and his body cut up,” said Turan Kislakci, head of the Turkish-Arab Media Association. He added that he expected Turkish authorities to produce all the evidence they have within three days.
“This is not over; this has just started. We want justice for Jamal,” said Kislakci. “We want Jamal’s murderers to be punished. Not just the 18 men, but also the authority that gave the order.”
That authority, Kislakci and others contend, is Bin Salman himself.
Overnight, King Salman had relieved four top intelligence officials from their posts, including deputy intelligence chief Ahmed Assiri, a general who came to fame for his full-throated defense of the country’s war in Yemen, as well as Mohammad Rumaih, Abdullah Shaya and Rashad Muhamadi.
Also fired was Saud Qahtani, Salman’s top communications officer and social media strategist, who has reportedly worked to.silence and discredit the kingdom’s critics.
Salman was to lead a ministerial committee that would restructure the command of the Saudi intelligence service and “determine its authorities and asses the procedures and powers governing its work,” according to a statement from the Saudi Press Agency. The committee would issue the results of its work within a month.
Absent from Saturday’s press conference was Hatice Cengiz, Khashoggi’s fiancee and the first to alert Turkish officials of his disappearance.
Over the last 18 days, she had insisted on her Twitter page that she did not believe her fiance was dead, even as she implored Trump and others to shed light on his disappearance.
That changed on Saturday.
“They took your bodily presence from my world,” she wrote on Twitter. “But your beautiful laugh will remain in my soul forever. My darling jkhashoggi.”
Times staff writers Tracy Wilkinson and Chris Megerian contributed to this report from Washington.
8:25 p.m.: This article was updated with new quotes from Trump.
5:20 p.m.: This article was updated with additional comments made Saturday by President Trump.
This article was originally published at 2:45 p.m.