Trump gives Saudi Arabia benefit of doubt in journalist’s disappearance

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo meets with Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, October 16, 2018. REUTERS/Leah Millis/Pool

WASHINGTON/RIYADH (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump gave Saudi Arabia the benefit of the doubt in the disappearance of journalist Jamal Khashoggi even as U.S. lawmakers pointed the finger at the Saudi leadership and Western pressure mounted on Riyadh to provide answers.

“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.”

Trump then referred directly to his nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ran into trouble in the Senate after several women came forward to accuse Kavanaugh of sexual misconduct, before Kavanaugh was ultimately confirmed.

Earlier, in a Twitter post, Trump said that Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman denied knowing what happened in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul where Khashoggi vanished two weeks ago after going there to collect documents he needed for his planned marriage.

Turkish officials have said they believe the Saudi journalist was murdered and his body removed, which the Saudis have strongly denied. Khashoggi was a U.S. resident who wrote columns for the Washington Post and he was critical of the Saudi government, calling for reforms.

“I’ve been their biggest defender on the floor of the United States Senate,” Graham said. “This guy is a wrecking ball. He had this guy murdered in a consulate in Turkey and to expect me to ignore it, I feel used and abused,” Graham said.

The Group of Seven foreign ministers, including the United States, said in a statement that they remained “very troubled” by Khashoggi’s disappearance, and looked forward to Riyadh conducting a “thorough, credible, transparent and prompt investigation, as announced.”

The statement was unusual for a group that normally weighs in on global foreign policy issues and speaks generally about human rights abuses in other countries.

U.S. media outlets reported on Monday that Saudi Arabia will acknowledge that Khashoggi was killed in a botched interrogation.

Trump speculated on Monday that “rogue killers” could be behind the disappearance, but gave no evidence to back up that theory.

CONGRESSIONAL PRESSURE

Members of the U.S. Congress, including some of Trump’s fellow Republicans, are among the loudest voices in the United States demanding answers and action on Khashoggi, who moved to Washington last year fearing retribution for his criticism of the crown prince.

Republican Representative Jeb Hensarling, outgoing chairman of the House of Representatives Financial Services Committee, said Washington might have to seriously review relations with Saudi Arabia if Riyadh was involved in killing Khashoggi.

“If this was a state-sanctioned assassination, which it may prove to be, then there will have to be a fundamental rethinking of our relationship vis-a-vis the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Absolutely,” Hensarling told Reuters.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan indicated that parts of the Saudi consulate in Istanbul had been repainted since Khashoggi’s disappearance.

“The investigation is looking into many things such as toxic materials and those materials being removed by painting them over,” Erdogan told reporters.

A Turkish security source said the search of the consulate provided “strong evidence” but no conclusive proof that Khashoggi was killed there.

The source confirmed that Saudi Consul General Mohammad al-Otaibi left Istanbul on Tuesday, returning to Riyadh. The source said Turkish authorities had not asked him to leave.

A search of the Saudi consul’s Istanbul residence was called off for the day because Saudi officials were not able to join, Turkish police said. Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu had said earlier on Tuesday that Turkish officials would extend their investigation into Khashoggi’s disappearance to include the residence of the Saudi consul and some vehicles.

Indicating unease over the Khashoggi case, international media and business executives have been pulling out of next week’s investment conference, known as “Davos of the desert.”

International Monetary Fund Managing Director Christine Lagarde and London Stock Exchange (LSE.L) Chief Executive David Schwimmer joined the list on Tuesday, as did the CEOs of HSBC (HSBA.L), Standard Chartered (STAN.L), Credit Suisse (CSGN.S), and BNP Paribas (BNPP.PA), and David Bonderman, the billionaire chairman and founding partner of private equity firm TPG.

Saudi Arabia has said it would retaliate against any pressure or economic sanctions.

CNN reported on Monday that after denying for two weeks any role in Khashoggi’s disappearance, Saudi Arabia was preparing to say he died in a botched interrogation. The New York Times reported that Prince Mohammed had approved an interrogation or abduction of Khashoggi and the government would shield him by blaming an intelligence official.

Saudi authorities could not be reached for comment.

Turkish authorities have an audio recording indicating that Khashoggi was killed in the consulate, Turkish sources have told Reuters.

The Saudi riyal SAR= rebounded after falling to its lowest level in two years over fears that foreign investment could shrink. The Saudi stock index .TASI initially dropped 3 percent but finished up after state-linked funds came in to buy toward the close.