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Trump Jumps to the Defense of Saudi Arabia in Khashoggi Case

The Trump administration pushed back on Tuesday against rising condemnation of Saudi Arabia and showed support for its crown prince, who has been linked to the disappearance and possible murder of a leading dissident journalist inside a Saudi consulate in Turkey.

In his strongest language to date over the missing journalist, President Trump said in an interview with The Associated Press: “Here we go again with you’re guilty until proven innocent.”

Hours earlier, Mr. Trump’s top diplomat, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, arrived in Riyadh, the Saudi capital, smiling and shaking hands with the crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman.

Mr. Pompeo issued a statement saying Saudi leaders had promised a “thorough, transparent, and timely investigation” into what had befallen the journalist, Jamal Khashoggi, after he entered the consulate on Oct. 2. Mr. Trump and Mr. Pompeo also said the Saudi leaders had repeated their emphatic denials of any involvement in Mr. Khashoggi’s disappearance.

After days of leaks by Turkish officials that accused Saudi Arabia of sending a hit squad to kill Mr. Khashoggi and dismember him with a bone saw, this was the latest indication that the Trump administration would help its top Arab ally defuse an international crisis.

The administration’s moves have come as criticism of Crown Prince Mohammed has intensified — including by Republican members of Congress, business leaders and human rights officials — over Mr. Khashoggi’s disappearance and apparent murder.

Saudi Arabia also took steps on Tuesday to please the White House. Just as Mr. Pompeo met with Saudi leaders, a long-promised Saudi pledge of $100 million to help American aid efforts in Syrian areas liberated from the Islamic State was deposited in State Department accounts.

Neither Mr. Trump nor Mr. Pompeo provided any new insights into what had happened to Mr. Khashoggi. But with his comment about presumed guilt, Mr. Trump drew a parallel to the sexual assault accusations made against his newest Supreme Court justice, Brett M. Kavanaugh.

Mr. Trump’s reference to the bitter confirmation battle over Justice Kavanaugh was telling. In that case, he initially took a restrained tone, observing that the judge’s accuser, Christine Blasey Ford, appeared credible in her testimony before the Senate about an alleged sexual assault.

But over time, as the furor threatened to irreparably tarnish his nominee, Mr. Trump discarded restraint. He complained that Justice Kavanaugh had been unfairly accused, raised questions about Dr. Blasey’s account, and even mocked her at a rally.

In the case of Mr. Khashoggi, Mr. Trump first expressed concern about the allegations and warned of severe consequences if the Saudi government were found responsible. But after days of unconvincing denials from the Saudis and growing evidence that Crown Prince Mohammed or his family may have been involved, Mr. Trump is shifting to a tone of defiance.

There are signs that Mr. Trump’s defense of Mr. Kavanaugh appealed to his political base, and may even have boosted the prospects of Republicans in the midterm elections. But a Saudi prince is different from a Supreme Court nominee, and unlike in Justice Kavanaugh’s case, there could yet be conclusive evidence of a heinous crime.

Mr. Khashoggi was last seen entering Saudi Arabia’s consulate in Istanbul seeking marriage documents. Speaking anonymously, Turkish officials say they have evidence he was killed within two hours of entering the consulate by a team of Saudi agents.

“Answers will be forthcoming shortly,” Mr. Trump said on Twitter, relaying that he had spoken with Crown Prince Mohammed on a phone call that also included Mr. Pompeo.

Prince Mohammed, Mr. Trump said, “totally denied any knowledge of what took place in their Turkish consulate.”

The crown prince “has already started, and will rapidly expand, a full and complete investigation into this matter,” the president said.

Speaking to reporters in Riyadh early Wednesday before departing for Turkey for talks with its top officials, Mr. Pompeo said Saudi leaders had promised him a complete and transparent investigation. “They made a commitment that they would show the entire world the results of their investigation,” he said. “They also made a commitment they would get this done quickly.”

Asked if the Saudis told him whether Mr. Khashoggi was alive, Mr. Pompeo declined to answer. “I don’t want to talk about any of the facts,” he said. “They didn’t want to either, in that they want to have the opportunity to complete this investigation in a thorough way.”

Mr. Khashoggi, who wrote columns for The Washington Post, lived in the United States, and his 60th birthday was on Saturday.

Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, told reporters in Ankara on Tuesday that investigators who searched the consulate on Monday and Tuesday were looking into “toxic materials, and those materials being removed by painting them over.” Turkish news outlets, citing unnamed sources, have reported that Mr. Khashoggi was drugged, and that parts of the consulate and the nearby consul’s residence were repainted after the journalist’s disappearance.

Later in the day, the Saudi consul, Mohammed al-Otaibi, left the country, the Turkish Foreign Ministry said. Mr. Pompeo is expected to travel to Ankara, the Turkish capital, on Wednesday.

Mr. Trump has vowed “severe punishment” if a Saudi hand is confirmed in Mr. Khashoggi’s killing, but has said he does not want the case to affect arms sales that create American jobs.

But on Monday, a person familiar with Saudi plans said the kingdom was likely to say that the killing was an accident committed by “rogue” Saudi agents, not an assassination ordered from Riyadh. The Saudi version of the story will probably be that officials intended to interrogate and abduct Mr. Khashoggi, spiriting him back to Saudi Arabia, but that they botched the job, killing him instead, the person said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because Saudi officials had yet to talk publicly about their plans.

The reported killing has created a bipartisan uproar in Congress, shaking the foundations of the close American-Saudi relationship with calls for suspension of military sales punctuated by particularly strong rebukes of Crown Prince Mohammed, who basically rules the kingdom for his father, King Salman.

Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina and formerly a strong advocate of Saudi Arabia, has been among the most outspoken critics of the crown prince over the Khashoggi mystery, even before more facts are known. “He had this guy murdered in the consulate in Turkey,” Mr. Graham said Tuesday on the “Fox and Friends” news program. “Expect me to ignore it? I feel used and abused.”

Mr. Graham said that “I’m not going back to Saudi Arabia as long as this guy’s in charge,” and suggested the king remove the prince from power. “This guy is a wrecking ball,” the senator said.

For two weeks, Saudi leaders, including both the king and the crown prince, have denied that their country had anything to do with Mr. Khashoggi’s disappearance and have said that they did not know where he was. Saudi officials have insisted that he left the consulate, safe and free, the same day he entered it, although they have offered no supporting evidence.

But by Monday night, it appeared that the Trump administration and Turkey’s leaders were leaving room for a new version of events: Mr. Trump said after speaking with King Salman that perhaps “rogue killers” had been involved.

At their meeting on Tuesday, Mr. Pompeo “thanked the king for his commitment to supporting a thorough, transparent and timely investigation of Jamal Khashoggi’s disappearance,” said Heather Nauert, a State Department spokeswoman.

Mr. Pompeo was greeted on arrival by Prince Khalid bin Salman, a son of the king and younger brother of the crown prince. Prince Khalid had been serving as the Saudi ambassador to Washington, but returned to Riyadh last week, and United States officials said he was unlikely to return.

After seeing the king, Mr. Pompeo met with Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir, and later with Crown Prince Mohammed.

“We are strong and old allies,” the crown prince said in English, in brief remarks as the meeting began. “We face our challenges together.”

The administration has refused calls to back down from lucrative weapon sales to Saudi Arabia. And Steven Mnuchin, the Treasury secretary, still plans to attend a Saudi investment forum next week, even as several American businesses and lobbyists have distanced themselves from the country.

On Tuesday morning, Mr. Trump wrote on Twitter, “For the record, I have no financial interests in Saudi Arabia.” It was not clear what prompted that statement, but several news organizations have noted recently that the president has boasted about real estate deals with wealthy Saudis and once sold his yacht to a Saudi prince — ties that had been reported before, but that have drawn new attention because of the Khashoggi case.

Amid mounting international outrage over the disappearance, the United Nations human rights chief, Michelle Bachelet, said on Tuesday that the Saudi authorities should reveal all they know.

The Washington Post’s publisher and chief executive, Fred Ryan, also spoke out while Mr. Pompeo was visiting with the Saudis. “The Saudi government can no longer remain silent, and it is essential that our own government and others push harder for the truth,” Mr. Ryan said on Twitter.

[Source: By Ben Hubbard, Rick Gladstone and Mark Landler, The New York Times, Beirut, 16Oct18]

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