WASHINGTON/ISTANBUL: US President Donald Trump said on Thursday he presumes journalist Jamal Khashoggi is dead and that the US response to Saudi Arabia will likely be “very severe” but that he still wanted to get to the bottom of what exactly happened.
In Istanbul, Turkish investigators for a second time searched the Saudi consulate where Khashoggi — a US resident and Washington Post columnist who was a strong critic of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman — vanished on October 2, seeking clues about an incident that has caused an international outcry.
Trump acknowledged for the first time that Khashoggi had likely been killed.
“It certainly looks that way to me. It’s very sad,” Trump told reporters before boarding Air Force One on a political trip.
Trump spoke hours after getting an update from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on the results of Pompeo’s emergency talks in Saudi Arabia and Turkey.
In an interview with the New York Times on Thursday, Trump also expressed confidence in intelligence reports that suggest a high-level Saudi role in the suspected killing of Khashoggi. Trump said, however, it was still “a little bit early” to draw definitive conclusions about who may have been behind it.
Pompeo told reporters after his meeting that he advised Trump that Saudi Arabia should be given a few more days to complete its investigation into the Khashoggi disappearance. Turkish officials have said they believe the Saudi journalist was murdered at the consulate and his body chopped up and removed.
Trump said he was waiting for the results so that “we can get to the bottom of this very soon” and that he would be making a statement about it at some point.
Asked what would be the consequences for Saudi Arabia, Trump said: “Well, it’ll have to be very severe. I mean, it’s bad, bad stuff. But we’ll see what happens.”
Saudi Arabia has denied involvement in the disappearance.
In addition, US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin abandoned plans to attend an investor conference in Riyadh, putting the high-profile event in question.
The United States considers Riyadh a linchpin in efforts to contain Iran’s regional influence and a key global oil source, and Trump has shown no inclination to mete out harsh punishment to the Saudis.
Referring to the Saudis, Pompeo said he told Trump “we ought to give them a few more days to complete” their investigation in order to get a full understanding of what happened, “at which point we can make decisions about how — or if — the United States should respond to the incident surrounding Mr. Khashoggi.”
By casting doubt on whether the US will respond at all, Pompeo reflected the internal struggle among Trump and his national security advisers on what to do should the Saudi leadership be blamed for what happened to Khashoggi.
“I think it’s important for us all to remember, too — we have a long, since 1932, a long strategic relationship with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia,” Pompeo told reporters after meeting with Trump, also calling Saudi Arabia “an important counterterrorism partner.”
A US government source said that US intelligence agencies are increasingly convinced of the crown prince’s culpability in the operation against Khashoggi, which they believe resulted in his death.
Mnuchin became the latest Western official to pull out of the investment conference in Riyadh scheduled for October 23-25, joining a list of international officials and business executives. Earlier on Thursday, senior government ministers from France, Britain, and the Netherlands withdrew, too.
How Western allies deal with Riyadh will hinge on the extent to which they believe responsibility for Khashoggi’s disappearance lies with Prince Mohammed and the Saudi authorities.
Trump, who has forged closer ties with Saudi Arabia and the 33-year-old prince, previously speculated without providing evidence that “rogue killers” could be responsible.
Turkish investigators left the Saudi consulate in Istanbul early on Thursday after searching the building and consular vehicles, a Reuters witness said. They used bright lights to illuminate the garden. Earlier, they spent nearly nine hours in the Saudi consul’s residence along with Saudi investigators.
The Turkish search, which used a drone, included the roof and garage.
The pro-government Sabah newspaper published a series of photos of a man it identified as someone who travels with the Saudi crown prince. The time-stamped photos showed the man outside the Saudi consulate building in Istanbul on the morning Khashoggi disappeared, Sabah said.
Khashoggi went to the consulate seeking documents for his planned upcoming marriage and has not been seen since.
The incident poses a dilemma for the US and other Western nations, which have lucrative business dealings with the authoritarian kingdom and count on it as a leading Middle East ally and opponent of their common enemy Iran. Saudi Arabia also wields significant influence as the world’s top oil exporter.
Four Western rights groups — Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, the Committee to Protect Journalists, and Reporters Without Borders — urged Turkey to ask the United Nations to investigate Khashoggi’s disappearance.
“U.N. involvement is the best guarantee against a Saudi whitewash or attempts by other governments to sweep the issue under the carpet to preserve lucrative business ties with Riyadh,” said Robert Mahoney, deputy executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists.
French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire and British trade minister Liam Fox pulled out of the Riyadh investment summit, citing concern over Khashoggi’s disappearance.
Dutch Finance Minister Wopka Hoekstra also scrapped plans to attend while the Dutch government cancelled a trade mission to Saudi Arabia next month.
Russian President Vladimir Putin said Moscow did not have enough information about Khashoggi’s disappearance to justify harming ties with Riyadh. His government will wait for details, Putin told a forum in the Black Sea resort of Sochi.