President Trump said Tuesday that Saudi officials had the “worst coverup ever” in the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi Consulate in Turkey but said he would “leave it up to Congress” to punish Riyadh for its behavior.
“They had a very bad original concept, it was carried out poorly, and the coverup was the worst in the history of coverups,” he said in a 40-minute Oval Office appearance with Vice President Pence and lawmakers. “They had the worst coverup ever.”
Trump has faced bipartisan criticism for taking a soft stance on the Saudis and as recently as last weekend called the government’s story “credible.” But the president appeared more open on Tuesday to punishing the Saudi government, telling reporters in the Oval Office he would consider jeopardizing military sales if the Saudi government was officially behind the killing.
“In terms of what we ultimately do, I’m going to leave it very much — in conjunction with me — I’m going to leave it up to Congress,” Trump said, adding he hopes a decision will be bipartisan.
Later Tuesday, speaking with reporters in the Cabinet Room before a dinner with military leaders, Trump acknowledged that “we’ll have to do something” if Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is implicated in Khashoggi’s death.
But Trump added that he had spoken on Monday with the crown prince, who “strongly said that he had nothing to do with this; this was at a lower level.”
Trump allies and advisers have encouraged him to take a tougher stance against the oil-rich monarchy, saying that Congress would fill the vacuum and punish Saudi Arabia either way. The administration took its first concrete step to penalize Saudi Arabia late Tuesday when the State Department said that it was revoking the visas for 21 Saudis implicated in Khashoggi’s killing.
The Saudi government has consistently changed its story on the Oct. 2 death of the Washington Post contributing columnist. First, Saudi officials said Khashoggi left the embassy unharmed, but after 17 days, following grisly news reports of Khashoggi’s death, Saudi officials said early Saturday that he was killed during an altercation inside the consulate.
Trump has repeatedly declined to say whether the crown prince was behind or aware of the killing as many U.S. officials and foreign governments have concluded, in part because many of the crown prince’s associates were involved in the killing. Trump instead has said there is not enough evidence to determine Mohammed’s involvement and that the Riyadh government has not indicated to him one way or the other if he ordered the killing. CIA Director Gina Haspel is currently in Turkey and is expected to return Wednesday.
Trump has repeatedly praised Saudi Arabia for buying arms from the United States, emphasized the importance of oil prices and focused criticism on Iran.
“I would love if he wasn’t responsible,” Trump said of Mohammed, also known as MBS, to The Washington Post on Saturday. “I think it’s a very important ally for us.”
Felicia Sonmez contributed to this report.