Trump says he remains unsatisfied with Saudi accounts on Khashoggi

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WASHINGTON/ISTANBUL (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump said on Monday he was still not satisfied with what he has heard from Saudi Arabia about the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey, but did not want to lose investment from Riyadh.

Trump said he had spoken with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the de facto ruler of the world’s top oil exporter, and has teams in Saudi Arabia and Turkey working on the case. He said he will know more after they return to Washington on Monday night or Tuesday.

“I am not satisfied with what I’ve heard,” Trump told reporters at the White House. “I don’t want to lose all that investment that’s been made in our country. But we’re going to get to the bottom of it.”

Trump has expressed reluctance to punish the Saudis economically, citing the kingdom’s multibillion-dollar purchases of U.S. military equipment and investments in U.S. companies.

Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist and critic of Prince Mohammed who lived in the United States, disappeared after he entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2 to obtain documents for his upcoming marriage.

Saudi Arabia initially denied knowledge of his fate before saying he had been killed in a fight in the consulate, an explanation that drew skepticism from several Western governments, straining relations with Riyadh.

Following the global outrage prompted by the journalist’s disappearance, Trump’s comments have varied from playing down Riyadh’s role to warning of possible economic sanctions. He has repeatedly highlighted the kingdom’s importance as a U.S. ally and said Prince Mohammed was a strong and passionate leader.

Over the weekend, as incredulity rose over Saudi Arabia’s shifting explanations about Khashoggi’s killing, Trump said he was not satisfied.

Turkish officials suspect Khashoggi was killed and dismembered inside the consulate by Saudi agents. Turkish sources say authorities have an audio recording purportedly documenting the killing of the 59-year-old.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan has said he will release information about the investigation in a speech on Tuesday.

Earlier on Monday, Trump’s son-in-law, White House adviser Jared Kushner, said in an interview on CNN that he had urged the crown prince to be transparent about Khashoggi and told him “the world is watching” Riyadh’s account of the journalist’s disappearance.

Kushner has cultivated a personal relationship with Prince Mohammed and urged Trump to act with caution to avoid upsetting a critical strategic and economic relationship, a senior administration official said.

On CNN, Kushner said he had told the crown prince, “This is a very, very serious accusation and a very serious situation.”

FILE PHOTO: Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi speaks at an event hosted by Middle East Monitor in London Britain, September 29, 2018. Middle East Monitor/Handout via REUTERS/File Photo

Asked how Prince Mohammed responded, Kushner said: “We’ll see.”

ROGUE OPERATION

On Sunday, Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister, Adel al-Jubeir, said Khashoggi had died in a rogue operation. But some of his comments did not match previous statements from Riyadh, marking yet another shift in the official story.

Several countries, including Germany, Britain, France and Turkey, have pressed Saudi Arabia to provide all the facts. Chancellor Angela Merkel said Berlin would not export arms to the kingdom while uncertainty over Khashoggi’s fate persisted.

Omer Celik, the spokesman for Erdogan’s AK Party, warned that the truth of the case would eventually be revealed.

“We are being careful so nobody tries to cover the issue up. The truth will come out,” Celik told reporters. “We are facing a situation that has been monstrously planned and later tried to be covered up. It is a complicated murder.”

A car belonging to the Istanbul consulate has been found in the city, broadcaster NTV and other local news media said on Monday, adding that police would search the vehicle.

Slideshow (18 Images)

CHOICE FOR SAUDI ALLIES

For Saudi Arabia’s allies, the question will be whether they believe that Prince Mohammed, who has painted himself as a reformer, has any culpability. King Salman, 82, has handed the day-to-day running of Saudi Arabia to the 33-year-old prince.

Further complicating the narrative, the explanation by Jubeir, the foreign minister, differed in parts from previous official statements.

He said the Saudis did not know how Khashoggi had died. That contradicted the public prosecutor’s statement a day earlier that Khashoggi died after a fistfight with people who met him inside the consulate. It also contradicted two Saudi officials’ comments to Reuters that it was a chokehold that killed him.

A Saudi official has said that a member of the team dressed in Khashoggi’s clothes to make it appear as if he had left the consulate. Support for that strand of the account appeared to come from footage aired by CNN showing a man dressed as Khashoggi walking around Istanbul. CNN described the images as law enforcement surveillance footage.

On Saturday, Saudi state media said King Salman had fired five officials over the killing carried out by a 15-man hit team, including Saud al-Qahtani, a top aide who ran social media for Prince Mohammed. According to two intelligence sources, Qahtani ran Khashoggi’s killing by giving orders over Skype.

In Moscow, U.S. national security adviser John Bolton said talks were continuing with the Saudis about the incident.

“We want to get the truth, and not just talk. First of all, we need to know why he died. Who killed him? We want to get the full lowdown,” Russian radio station Ekho Moskvy quoted Bolton as saying during a visit to Moscow.

In Riyadh, Prince Mohammed met with U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and discussed “the importance of the Saudi-US strategic partnership,” according to Saudi state media.

Additional reporting by Doina Chiacu and Susan Heavey in Washington; Tuvan Gumrukcu in Ankara and Daren Butler in Istanbul; Maxim Rodionov in Moscow; and Maher Chmaytelli in Dubai; Editing by Robin Pomeroy, Alistair Bell and Jonathan Oatis

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