President Donald Trump conceded Thursday that Jamal Khashoggi is likely dead — an admission that ramps up pressure on Saudi Arabia to explain what happened to the missing journalist.
Trump has spent almost two weeks downplaying the significance of Khashoggi’s Oct. 2 disappearance, so as not to derail his close relationship with the Saudi royal family.
But mounting evidence appears to have forced Trump to concede that the version of events pushed by Turkish officials — that Khashoggi was tortured, killed and dismembered inside the Saudi embassy in Istanbul — is accurate.
“It certainly looks that way to me,” Trump told reporters at Andrews Air Force Base when asked if Khashoggi was dead. “It's very sad.”
Trump added that Saudi Arabia could face a “very severe” response from the U.S., but it will depend on the outcome of ongoing investigations.
Trump has been criticized for trying to minimize the Khashoggi crisis. In a bid to protect the president from blowback, a group of GOP lawmakers this week circulated articles from right-wing media outlets that smeared Khashoggi — highlighting his links to the Muslim Brotherhood in his youth, the Washington Post reports.
Trump’s turnaround came after a meeting Thursday with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who debriefed the president about meetings in Riyadh with King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, as well as a sit-down with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
ABC News reported Thursday that Turkish officials shared with Pompeo an audio recording and transcript of the alleged murder — a claim the secretary of state denied.
“I’ve heard no tape, I’ve seen no transcript. And the network that reported that ought to pull down the headline that says I have,” Pompeo told reporters on his way to Mexico on Thursday.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Cavusoglu said Friday that Turkey had not given the audio recordings to Pompeo or any other American official.
Trump’s apparent shift coincided with a coordinated announcement by France, Germany, the U.K. and the Netherlands that they are suspending all political visits to Saudi Arabia until the Khashoggi probes are complete. Many global business leaders, including US Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, have also pulled out of a Saudi-hosted investment conference set for next week.
The move is significant because, like the U.S., Saudi Arabia is a major customer for British and French weapons industries.
Turkish police searching for Khashoggi’s body had initially focused on the Saudi consulate in Istanbul and the nearby consul’s residence. On Thursday, they broadened their search to include Belgrad Forest — some 10 miles north of the city center, as well as farmland in Turkey’s Yalova province.
Samples taken from the consulate will be tested for Khashoggi’s DNA, officials told Reuters.
Along with the investigation led by Turkish officials, Saudi Arabia is conducting its own probe — which reportedly will paint the death as an accident. That explanation seems unlikely to pacify mounting international anger.
A White House source told The Washington Post that Riyadh will pin the blame on Maj. Gen. Ahmed al-Assiri, the deputy head of Saudi intelligence and a close adviser to Prince Mohammed. The report will claim Khashoggi’s death was the result of an overzealous interrogation and seek to exonerate the leadership.
Cover image: Donald Trump talks to reporters while hosting workers and members of his Cabinet for a meeting in the Oval Office at the White House on October 17, 2018 in Washington, DC. (The Asahi Shimbun via Getty Images)