US President Donald Trump on Wednesday said he does not want to walk away from Saudi Arabia despite concerns about a missing Saudi journalist, as pressure mounted on the kingdom to answer Turkish allegations he was killed in Istanbul.
“I do not want to do that,” Trump said in an interview on Fox Business Network when asked if the United States would walk away from its Gulf ally, reiterating his hopes that Saudi leaders were not involved in the disappearance of Jamal Khashoggi.
Trump’s top diplomat Mike Pompeo meanwhile said Riyadh should be given a few more days to complete a probe into the disappearance of the veteran journalist, a prominent critic of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
Turkish officials have said they believe Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist, was murdered at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2 and his body removed. Turkish sources have told Reuters the authorities have an audio recording indicating Khashoggi was killed inside the consulate.
The Saudis have strongly denied those allegations, but US media outlets have reported they will acknowledge he was killed in a botched interrogation. Trump has speculated without providing evidence that “rogue killers” could be responsible
How the crown prince emerges from the crisis is a test of how the West will deal with Saudi Arabia in the future. At issue will be to what extent the West believes responsibility for Khashoggi lies with the powerful young ruler.
Pompeo met Turkey’s president and foreign minister to discuss Khashoggi’s disappearance, a day after Trump gave Saudi Arabia the benefit of the doubt while US lawmakers pointed the finger at the Saudi leadership.
“They’re going to do an investigation, and when the investigation comes out we’ll evaluate it. It’s not about benefit of the doubt,” Pompeo told reporters travelling with him in Brussels, hours after his visit to Turkey.
“It’s reasonable to give them a handful of days more to complete it so they get it right, so that it’s thorough and complete and that’s what they’ve indicated they need, and then we’ll get to see it, we’ll evaluate it on a factual, straight-up basis.”
Dispatched by Trump to address the crisis, Pompeo visited Riyadh on Tuesday for talks with Saudi King Salman and his Crown Prince on a visit to Riyadh. A State Department spokeswoman confirmed that Pompeo had not heard any audio recording purporting to indicate Khashoggi was killed.
A US resident, Khashoggi vanished during a visit to the consulate on October 2 to collect marriage documents. A team of Turkish investigators entered the Saudi consul’s residence on Wednesday after delays. Their search included the roof and garage, and employed a drone to surveil the premises.
The consul general left Turkey for Riyadh on Tuesday.
TEST FOR CROWN PRINCE
“Yesterday evening, unfortunately, police could not search the Saudi consul’s residence. The Saudis claimed that the consul’s family was inside,” Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told reporters.
“We have said before that Saudi Arabia must cooperate with us in every aspect without delay.”
An 11-member Saudi investigation team arrived at the consul’s Istanbul residence, broadcaster CNN Turk said.
A pro-government Turkish daily published preliminary evidence last week from investigators who it said had identified a 15-member Saudi intelligence team that arrived in Istanbul on diplomatic passports hours before Khashoggi disappeared.
A New York Times report, citing witnesses and other records, linked four suspects to Prince Mohammed’s security detail.
One name matches a LinkedIn profile for a forensic expert who has worked at the interior ministry for 20 years. Another is identified in a diplomatic directory from 2007 as a first secretary at the Saudi Embassy in London. Others resemble officers in the Saudi Army and Air Force.
After his meetings with the King and Crown Prince on Tuesday, Pompeo said Saudi Arabia has committed to conducting a full investigation.
Asked whether they said Khashoggi was alive or dead, Pompeo said: “They didn’t talk about any of the facts.”
Earlier, Trump tweeted that Prince Mohammed had denied knowing what happened in the Saudi consulate.
“I think we have to find out what happened first,” Trump told the Associated Press in an interview on Tuesday. “Here we go again with, you know, you’re guilty until proven innocent. I don’t like that.”
Prince Mohammed, who has enjoyed a close relationship with the Trump administration, has painted himself as the face of a new, vibrant Saudi Arabia, diversifying its economy away from reliance on oil and making some social changes.
But there has been mounting criticism of some of the prince’s moves, including Riyadh’s involvement in the Yemen war, the arrest of women activists, and a diplomatic row with Canada.
Members of the US Congress, including some of Trump’s fellow Republicans, are among the loudest voices in the United States demanding answers and action on Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist who moved to Washington last year fearing retribution for his critical views.
Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican close to Trump, has called Prince Mohammed “a wrecking ball” and accused him of ordering Khashoggi’s murder.
Despite concerns about Saudi human rights, Trump still says he is unwilling to pull out of arms sales accords with Riyadh.
US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin plans to attend an investment conference in Riyadh next week, even as IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde, and top executives from Societe Generale and Glencore joined a growing list of executives who have pulled out.
Saudi Arabia, the world’s top oil exporter and a partner in US efforts to combat Iranian influence in the region, has said it would retaliate against any pressure or economic sanctions.