Donald Trump turned on Saudi Arabia Tuesday, telling White House reporters that the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi was the “worst cover-up in history.”
Trump later told the Wall Street Journal that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) likely knew about the assassination — but made sure to clear King Salman of any culpability.
“The prince is running things over there more so at this stage,” Trump said about the killing. “He's running things and so if anybody were going to be, it would be him.”
Asked about the Crown Prince’s denials, Trump said: “I want to believe them, I really want to believe them.”
Trump’s comments echoed those of Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who gave a speech in Ankara Tuesday that detailed how an assassination squad from Riyadh meticulously planned and executed the “vicious, violent murder” of the Washington Post columnist.
Erdogan challenged the Saudis’ official account and ratcheted up pressure on the Crown Prince while being careful not to implicate the King. He also demanded Riyadh return those responsible for the murder to stand trial in Turkey.
In a staged photo-op, MBS met with Khashoggi’s son, who is reportedly barred from leaving the kingdom, Tuesday to offer his condolences. The prince is expected to publicly address the issue Wednesday in a speech at an investment conference in Riyadh.
Yet despite mounting international pressure and numerous high-profile speakers withdrawing from the conference, known as “Davos in the Desert,” things seem to be pretty much business as usual for the kingdom. The CEO of Saudi Aramco told CNN Wednesday that $50 billion worth of deals were signed on the opening day alone.
The Saudis responsible are in “big trouble”
Trump’s comments Tuesday night mark a harsher tone towards the Saudis from a White House that has been reluctant to criticize the Kingdom, despite the growing scandal.
"They had a very bad original concept, it was carried out poorly and the cover-up was the worst in the history of cover-ups,” Trump said, seemingly more angered by the botched deception than the crime. “Whoever thought of that idea, I think is in big trouble. And they should be in big trouble.”
Yet Trump made clear Tuesday that he still isn’t willing to jeopardize a lucrative arms deal with the Saudis potentially worth in excess of $100 billion.
The president is set to meet U.S. intelligence officials Wednesday for an update.
CIA director Gina Haspell, who was dispatched earlier this week to Istanbul, has been granted full access to Turkish government files on the murder, including audio tapes of the torture, killing and dismemberment, according to the pro-government Daily Sabah newspaper.
Pompeo kicks out Saudi officials
The State Department said Tuesday it was revoking the U.S. visas of 21 Saudi officials as punishment, while Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned Riyadh that the visas “will not be the last word on this matter from the United States.”
Foggy Bottom would not name the 21 people who lost their visas — but said they included Saudis from “the intelligence services, the royal court, the foreign ministry, and other Saudi ministries.”
Pompeo said he would also work with the U.S. Treasury to impose human-rights related bans, including the freezing of assets and travel bans.
"We are making very clear that the United States does not tolerate this kind of ruthless action to silence Mr. Khashoggi, a journalist, with violence," Pompeo said, adding that maintaining a strong relationship with Saudi Arabia was important for the security and stability of the region.
“We continue to view as achievable the twin imperative of protecting America and holding accountable those responsible for the killing of Mr. Khashoggi,” Pompeo said.
He also revealed Tuesday that the U.S. had “identified at least some of the individuals responsible” for the murder.
Riyadh still can’t get its story straight
Saudi Arabia changed its story again Wednesday, with two officials telling AP that the assassination squad acted on the orders of King Salman’s predecessor, King Abdullah, who before his death in 2015 had ordered that exiled dissidents were to be repatriated.
The latest version claims Khashoggi died in a chokehold, accidentally killed by a person restraining him.
The officials admitted that a forensic expert was there to wipe clean the consulate, and said a body double was used to try and convince people that Khashoggi had left the embassy.
The international community keeps the pressure on Saudi Arabia
Erdogan heaped more pressure on Riyadh Wednesday, reiterating his government’s determination “not to allow the murder to be covered up and for those responsible — from the person who gave the order to those who executed it — not to escape justice.”
The was also a strong rebuke from the EU’s foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, who said Tuesday that Saudi explanations “leave many doubts and many questions unanswered.”
Seeking to capitalize on the fracturing Saudi-U.S. relationship, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said Wednesday that the Kingdom would not have murdered Khashoggi without U.S. protection.
“No one would imagine that in today’s world and a new century that we would witness such an organized murder and a system would plan out such a heinous murder,” Rouhani said, according to the Islamic Republic News Agency.
Germany announced last week it was suspending sales of arms to the Kingdom — a move Australia said Wednesday it was also considering.
A joint statement from the U.K., France and, Germany earlier this week said nothing could justify the killing of a journalist, adding that Riyadh’s explanations so far fell short.
“There remains an urgent need for clarification of exactly what happened on October 2nd — beyond the hypotheses that have been raised so far in the Saudi investigation, which need to be backed by facts to be considered credible,” the statement said.
Cover image: Donald Trump speaks during a briefing with senior military leaders in the Cabinet Room of the White House in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Tuesday, Oct. 23, 2018. (Al Drago/Bloomberg via Getty Images)