Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman did most of the talking as he received Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Tuesday for what the White House had billed as a hard-nosed effort to get answers in the case of missing Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
But neither the prince nor Pompeo said anything about the grave purpose of the hasty trip to Riyadh as the two shook hands, posed for photos and made small talk about jet lag during a relaxed and friendly sit-down before news cameras.
“We are strong and old allies. We face our challenges together — the past, the day of, tomorrow,” Mohammed said.
“Absolutely,” Pompeo said.
President Trump hours later tweeted that he had spoken with Mohammed during Pompeo’s meeting and that the Saudi prince “totally denied any knowledge of what took place in their Turkish Consulate.”
By late afternoon, Trump suggested in an interview with the Associated Press that the Saudis were being unfairly treated.
“Here we go again with, you know, you’re guilty until proven innocent,” he said, comparing the situation to when Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh was accused of sexual assault during his confirmation process.
While Trump had earlier promised to “leave nothing uncovered” in the case of Khashoggi’s disappearance, he and his administration now appear more eager to contain any damage the incident could cause to U.S. relations with the oil-rich nation than it is to confront Saudi leaders over the possible murder of a journalist and U.S. resident who wrote critically of the kingdom’s rulers.
Khashoggi vanished after entering the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2. Turkish officials have said they believe he was killed inside the building and have demanded answers from Saudi Arabia.
The disappearance of Khashoggi, a Washington Post contributing columnist, has led to fierce criticism of the Saudis from members of Congress in both parties. Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) told Fox News on Tuesday that the crown prince is “toxic” and “has got to go” before adding that he plans “to sanction the hell out of Saudi Arabia.”
“I can never do business with Saudi Arabia again, until we get this behind us,” Graham said in the interview, saying that nothing of this magnitude could have happened without the crown prince’s knowledge.
But the Trump administration has softened its approach to the kingdom in recent days with Trump emphasizing that both Mohammed and his father, King Salman, have denied having any knowledge of what happened to Khashoggi.
Pompeo’s trip to Saudi Arabia was the administration’s most visible effort to address a growing diplomatic crisis with implications for Trump priorities in the Middle East and billions in arms sales, but it included no public mention of the writer who vanished.
Pompeo said in a statement late Tuesday that he had “emphasized the importance of conducting a thorough, transparent, and timely investigation” into the fate of Khashoggi. “The Saudi leadership pledged to deliver precisely on that.” Pompeo said he is heading to Turkey to meet with senior government leaders.
Trump has not threatened any consequences for Saudi Arabia. He has already publicly rejected punitive sanctions or cancellations of military sales to Saudi Arabia, and he has not discussed other potential consequences for the relationship.
Vice President Pence, touring hurricane damage in Georgia, told reporters that “we’re going to demand answers,” although he did not say how. “The world deserves answers.”
The prince, known by the initials MBS, has forged a close relationship with both Trump and his son-in-law and adviser, Jared Kushner. Kushner frequently touts the prince’s business smarts and vision for a modernized Saudi Arabia, as well as his commitment to such U.S. priorities as countering Iran’s influence.
Kushner has also sought Saudi diplomatic and financial backing for his still-secret Middle East peace plan. But Salman earlier disappointed the administration by criticizing Trump’s decision to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem and by letting it be known that the move had limited the amount of support Saudi Arabia could give to the peace plan.
As of Tuesday, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin still planned to attend a Saudi investment conference next week, even after several U.S. businesses pulled out of the event linked to Mohammed in protest of Khashoggi’s disappearance.
Khashoggi, who had criticized the prince as headstrong and misguided, was living in Virginia, in self-imposed exile, when he vanished during a visit to Turkey. He had planned to marry a Turkish woman and visited the consulate to obtain paperwork related to the marriage.
“Turkey is looking at it very strongly. We’re all looking at it together,” Trump said Tuesday in an interview with Fox Business Network when asked about Mnuchin’s participation in the event for investors.
“But Turkey and Saudi Arabia are looking at it very strongly, and it depends whether or not the king or the crown prince knew about it, in my opinion,” Trump said. “Number one, what happened, but whether or not they knew about it. If they knew about it, that would be bad.”
A day earlier, Trump told reporters that the Saudi king had been “very strong” in his denial of involvement or knowledge of what happened to Khashoggi.
“The king firmly denied any knowledge of it. He didn’t really know. Maybe — I don’t want to get into his mind — but it sounded to me like maybe these could have been rogue killers,’” Trump said. “Who knows? We’re going to try getting to the bottom of it very soon. But his was a flat denial.”
Trump has twice noted that Khashoggi was not a U.S. citizen, which human rights advocates and members of Congress said was beside the point.
“Luring someone into a consulate where they’re . . . murdered, dismembered and disposed of is a big deal,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said in an interview with CNN. “By the way, this happens to be a green-card holder of the United States and who had been a journalist, but he could have been, you know, a maintenance worker at The Washington Post, it wouldn’t have mattered.”
Rubio said U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia give Trump leverage, but he urged the president to look beyond that transactional concern.
“I don’t care how much money it is. There isn’t enough money in the world to purchase back our credibility on human rights and the way nations should conduct themselves,” he said.
Trump’s deference to the Saudi denials has echoes in his treatment of Vladimir Putin and the Russian president’s denials of interference in the 2016 presidential elections. In both cases, as well as Russian denial of involvement in the poisoning of a former spy in Britain, Trump has seemed to suggest that there is little he can do in the face of a “strong” denial from another leader.
Earlier Tuesday, Trump tweeted in irritation about news coverage of his business ties to Saudi Arabia.
“For the record, I have no financial interests in Saudi Arabia (or Russia, for that matter). Any suggestion that I have is just more FAKE NEWS (of which there is plenty)!” Trump wrote.
Speaking at a campaign rally in 2015, Trump had said this: “Saudi Arabia, I get along with all of them. They buy apartments from me. They spend $40 million, $50 million. Am I supposed to dislike them? I like them very much.”
Trump has ties dating to at least the 1990s that include cash infusions from deals with Saudi officials, leading critics to question how much this is weighing on the president’s thinking with regard to the Khashoggi controversy.
“Since Trump’s election, the Saudis have continued to pour money into Trump properties, including being the first publicly reported foreign government to make a payment to a Trump business following Trump’s election,” said Carolyn Kenney, a national security policy analyst at the liberal Center for American Progress. “Given the fact that Trump, his family members, and his advisers are financially benefiting from Saudi Arabia, it is hard to believe that Trump’s response to the disappearance and alleged killing of Jamal Khashoggi wouldn’t be affected by these benefits.”