ANKARA/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump said on Wednesday he did not want to abandon close ally Saudi Arabia over the disappearance of a Saudi journalist and government critic, and he needed to see evidence to prove Turkish claims he was killed by Saudi agents.
Trump said he was waiting for a full report on what had happened to Jamal Khashoggi from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, whom he sent to Saudi Arabia and Turkey to meet with officials over the disappearance.
Turkish officials have said they believe Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist who was critical of the authoritarian kingdom’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, was murdered at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2 and his body removed. The Saudis have denied the allegations.
Turkish sources have told Reuters the authorities have an audio recording indicating Khashoggi was killed inside the consulate. He has not been seen since entering the building.
Turkey’s pro-government Yeni Safak newspaper on Wednesday published what it said were details from audio recordings that purported to document Khashoggi’s torture and interrogation.
Khashoggi was killed within minutes and his torturers severed his fingers during the interrogation, the newspaper said. His killers later beheaded and dismembered him, it said.
Turkey has not shared with the U.S. government or European allies graphic audio or video evidence, seven U.S. and European security officials told Reuters. The United States and allies have collected some intelligence through their own sources and methods, which partly confirms news reports based on leaks of audio recordings, four of the sources said.
A New York Times report cited a senior Turkish official confirming the details published by Yeni Safak. Two Turkish government officials contacted by Reuters declined to confirm the report.
Trump, who has forged closer ties with Saudi Arabia and the 33-year-old crown prince, said the United States has asked Turkey for any audio or video evidence.
Asked in a Fox Business Network interview if Washington could abandon Riyadh, Trump said: “I do not want to do that.”
Trump reiterated his hopes that Saudi leaders were not involved in his disappearance of Khashoggi, a U.S. resident.
“We have asked for it, if it exists … I’m not sure yet that it exists, probably does, possibly does,” he later told reporters when asked about audio or video evidence.
U.S. media outlets have reported that Riyadh, despite its earlier denials of involvement, 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.
Trump has appeared unwilling to distance himself too much from the Saudis, citing Riyadh’s role in countering Iranian influence in the region – and tens of billions of dollars in potential arms deals.
Other Western nations, although expressing concern about the incident, face a similar delicate situation in their dealings with the world’s top oil exporter.
Pompeo meanwhile said Riyadh should be given a few more days to complete its own probe into Khashoggi’s disappearance. He met Turkey’s president and foreign minister, a day after Trump gave Saudi Arabia the benefit of the doubt.
“They’re going to do an investigation, and when the investigation comes out we’ll evaluate it,” Pompeo told reporters traveling with him.
A State Department spokeswoman said Pompeo had not heard any audio recording purporting to indicate Khashoggi was killed.
Pompeo also said the United States must be mindful of important business and government ties with Saudi Arabia as it considers any steps once the facts have been determined.
Turkish investigators entered the Saudi consul’s residence on Wednesday after delays. Their search included the roof and garage, and the deployment of a drone over the premises. The consul-general had left Turkey for Riyadh on Tuesday.
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.”
Prince Mohammed 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 criticism of some of his moves, including Riyadh’s involvement in the Yemen war, the arrest of women activists, and a diplomatic row with Canada.
U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said his plans to attend an investment conference in Riyadh next week would be revisited on Thursday after U.S. officials have a chance to consult Pompeo. IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde, and top executives from Societe Generale (SOGN.PA) and Glencore joined a growing list of executives who have pulled out.
Saudi Arabia has said it would retaliate against any pressure or economic sanctions.
Marine General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, met his Saudi counterpart on Wednesday for previously scheduled talks, according to a U.S. military readout that made no mention of Khashoggi.
Reporting by Leah Millis, Tulay Karadeniz and Steve Holland; additional reporting by Makini Brice, Lesley Wroughton and Mark Hosenball in Washington, Ali Kucukgocmen and Daren Butler in Istanbul and Gulsen Solaker and Orhan Coskun in Ankara; Writing by Stephen Kalin and David Dolan; Editing by William Maclean, Angus MacSwan and Grant McCool