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Pompeo hears Turkey’s accusations against Saudi Arabia in Khashoggi case

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Oct. 17 Saudi Arabia's leaders had committed to investigate Washington Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi's disappearance. (Video: Reuters)

ANKARA, Turkey — Secretary of State Mike Pompeo received a firsthand briefing Wednesday on Turkey’s claims that Jamal Khashoggi was killed by Saudi agents, but he did not listen to an audio recording that Turkey says offers a gruesome rendering of the journalist’s last moments alive.

Pompeo’s trip to hear both sides of the Khashoggi case — Saudi denials in Riyadh and Turkish accusations in Ankara — did not appear to offer any deeper clarity into how the Trump administration is dealing with the conflicting accounts from two major allies.

But Pompeo suggested any possible U.S. response would weigh the country’s “important relations” with Saudi Arabia — a point made often by President Trump that has raised speculation the United States may be unwilling to jeopardize business and security ties with the kingdom.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo arrived in Ankara Oct. 17 for talks with the Turkish president over the disappearance of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. (Video: Reuters)

Speaking to the Fox Business Network on Wednesday, Trump again cited counterterrorism cooperation with Saudi Arabia and the kingdom’s contracts with U.S. defense contractors.

“We’ll get down to the bottom of it,” Trump said. “I hope that the [Saudi] king and the crown prince didn’t know about it. That’s the big factor in my eyes, and I hope they haven’t.”

Yet the Saudi system is built to be directed from the very top. Lower-level officials and others in the kingdom typically must clear any significant plan with King Salman and his top princes, including the current de facto leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Pompeo told reporters that the United States wants to give the Saudis “space” to come up with their reckonings into what occurred Oct. 2 after Khashoggi entered the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul.

State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said Pompeo did not listen to a key piece of Turkey’s evidence — an audio recording that Turkey claims captures Khashoggi’s struggle and death inside the consulate. It was unclear whether Turkey offered Pompeo a chance to listen to the recording Turkish officials say they have.

Turkish authorities have not divulged how they obtained the audio, but they claim it offers proof that Khashoggi was killed and probably dismembered.

Hours after Pompeo left Turkey, however, Trump sent possible mixed signals. He said U.S. officials want to review any audio and video from Turkey relating to Khashoggi, a Washington Post contributing columnist and U.S. resident. 

“We have asked for [audio and video] if it exists,” Trump told reporters.

He was then asked whether he believes Turkey has such material. “Probably does. Possibly does,” Trump replied.

“I’m not giving cover at all,” Trump added, referring to Saudi Arabia. “They are an ally. We have other good allies in the Middle East.”

Trump equates accusations against Saudis to Supreme Court fight

On Tuesday, however, Trump suggested the world should not rush to judgment against Saudi Arabia, saying the global outcry is akin to a case of “you’re guilty until proven innocent.”

Turkey, meanwhile, appeared intent to further build its claims against Saudi Arabia.

Investigators, wearing white crime-scene overalls and shoe covers, entered the Istanbul residence of the Saudi consul general, Mohammed al-Otaibi, who has returned to Riyadh. The search Wednesday came two days after Turkish forensic experts combed through the consulate, bringing away clues that officials said included possible bloodstains.

The residence, about 500 yards from the consulate, is considered another key site in the probe. Several diplomatic cars were seen leaving the consulate for the house about an hour after Khashoggi stepped through the consulate’s doors. Security cameras on the surrounding streets did not see him leave by foot, Turkish officials say.

Turkey’s private DHA news agency reported that police wanted to inspect a “water well” in the garden of the residence. The news agency did not cite a source, and the report could not be independently verified.

After his meeting with Pompeo, Turkey’s foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, mocked the Saudi denials. He noted how the Saudi consul general opened a cupboard for a team from the Reuters news agency earlier this month “as if to say, ‘See, he isn’t here.’ ” 

“Acting disrespectfully is not the correct approach,” Cavusoglu said.

Suleyman Soylu, Turkey’s interior minister, told the semiofficial Anadolu news agency that after the investigation is completed, the prosecutor’s office and law enforcement will “meticulously present the results of the investigation” and “the whole world will be presented with what was what.” 

Pompeo’s meetings in Turkey’s capital, Ankara, were in sharp contrast to his talks a day earlier in Riyadh, where Saudi leaders repeated their denials that they had knowledge of Khashoggi’s fate after he entered the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul earlier this month.

Suspects cited by Turkey linked to Saudi security services

Before leaving Riyadh, Pompeo told reporters that Saudi officials pledged they would hold any wrongdoers accountable, no matter how high their positions.

“They promised accountability for each of those persons whom they determine as a result of their investigation deserves accountability,” he said. Asked whether that includes members of the royal family, Pompeo added, “They made no exceptions to who they would hold accountable.”

In New York, House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) said the episode “could be a real setback” for Saudi Arabia but predicted that a great deal of the kingdom’s relationship with the United States “will persist no matter what.”

Asked in a television interview that aired Wednesday about reports that Khashoggi was the victim of an interrogation gone wrong, Ryan said that would be “really disturbing.” 

“If this is the case, it’s atrocious, and we have laws for this,” Ryan said on “CBS This Morning,” raising the possibility that Saudi Arabia could face U.S. sanctions.

“So I think these are the kinds of things that we’ll be looking at in Congress,” he said. “I’ve got to say, this was supposed to be a new Saudi government that was going to be reforming, opening up, transparency, moderating Islam, and to see something like this could be a real setback.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) also predicted U.S. backlash if a Saudi link is proved, but he said Congress is awaiting details from Pompeo on his meetings.

“I can’t imagine there will be no response” to Khashoggi’s death, McConnell said.

There are also hints of possible clash in Congress.

A group of 11 Democratic senators issued a letter Wednesday to Trump and the Trump Organization seeking a full accounting of any financial ties between the company and Saudi Arabia.

Trump denies any personal financial ties to Saudi Arabia, but his business empire had several high-profile dealings with the kingdom in the past.

In the 1990s, as Trump’s business empire was stumbling, he secured cash infusions from deals with Saudi officials. He sold a yacht for $20 million to Prince Alwaleed bin Talal. Trump sold a stake in the Plaza Hotel to the prince a few years later. In 2001, he sold a floor of Trump World Tower, near the United Nations in New York, to the Saudi government for $4.5 million.

Morris and Fahim reported from Istanbul. John Wagner, Amber Phillips and Brian Murphy in Washington and Philip Bump in New York contributed to this report.

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