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Trump appears to make room for Saudis to deny involvement in Khashoggi disappearance

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met with Saudi Arabia's King Salman Oct. 16 to discuss the disappearance of Washington Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi. (Video: Reuters)

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — President Trump offered embattled Saudi Arabia a suggestion of support Tuesday amid mounting pressure over the disappearance of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, saying the kingdom is being judged “guilty until proven innocent.”

The remarks, in an interview with the Associated Press, put Trump widely out of step with many world leaders amid Turkish assertions that Khashoggi was killed by a Saudi hit team this month after entering the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul.

They also could complicate talks planned Wednesday between Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Turkish leaders on the Khashoggi case.

“Here we go again with you’re guilty until proven innocent,” Trump told the AP, comparing the situation to allegations of sexual assault leveled against now-
Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh during his confirmation hearing.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met with the Saudi crown prince in Riyadh Oct. 16 for talks on the disappearance of Washington Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi. (Video: The Washington Post)

Trump has shifted his views several times since Khashoggi — a Washington Post columnist and U.S. resident — was last seen in public Oct. 2.

Trump last week said that Saudi Arabia would face “severe punishment” if the kingdom was found to have a link to Khashoggi’s apparent death. But he appeared to reject possible sanctions, claiming they could harm the United States’ deep defense industry ties with Saudi Arabia.

Two weeks after Khashoggi was last seen in public, the case has splintered into an array of conjecture and claims.

But Turkish investigators have not wavered in their claims of Saudi involvement. On Tuesday, Turkish authorities sought to expand the scope of their investigation, demanding access to the main Saudi diplomatic residence in Istanbul and vehicles in the consulate fleet.

In another possible window into the case, Turkish officials provided The Post with scans of passports that they say were carried by seven men who were part of the suspected 15-member Saudi squad allegedly involved in Khashoggi’s death.

The Post published the passport scans but obscured the faces and names of the men because it has not independently verified their identities.

Saudi rulers have steadfastly denied any hand in the disappearance of Khashoggi, a Post contributing columnist who had been critical of the Saudi leadership.

The next steps on all sides remained unclear.

U.S. officials expect the Saudi government to accept responsibility for the death of Khashoggi in an explanation that shields the powerful crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman — the de facto Saudi ruler — from fault, said a diplomat familiar with the situation. The diplomat spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive matter.

In Turkey, however, authorities have insisted on even greater latitude for their investigation.

Turkish investigators search Saudi Consulate, where journalist was last seen

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said authorities now want access to the Istanbul residence of the Saudi consul general — who has left Istanbul to return to the Saudi capital, Riyadh — and the consulate’s vehicles.

At the same time, Turkish leaders planned talks Wednesday with Pompeo that would likely include Turkey’s assertions that a Saudi hit team killed Khashoggi after he entered the Saudi Consulate on Oct. 2.

Pompeo was in Riyadh on Tuesday to hear an entirely different account: Another round of denials from Saudi rulers.

In a statement, Pompeo said the crown prince pledged “a full and complete conclusion with full transparency for the world to see.” But Pompeo gave no details on the possible findings or when such a report could be issued.

Earlier, Trump tweeted that the crown prince “told me that he has already started, and will rapidly expand, a full and complete investigation into this matter. Answers will be forthcoming shortly.” Trump, too, did not elaborate.

In Turkey, experts sifted through possible evidence at the last public place the journalist was seen alive.

Saudi Arabia rejects ‘threats’ over Khashoggi disappearance

On Monday, forensics experts had their first chance to comb the Saudi Consulate, and they plan to expand their search to diplomatic vehicles and the main residence. A source in Istanbul who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the probe, said investigators found evidence of homicide in the form of blood.

Amid the fallout, Saudi Arabia’s consul general in Istanbul, Mohammad al-Otaibi, left Turkey for Riyadh on Tuesday, according to Turkey’s state-run Anadolu news agency, citing diplomatic sources.

“The investigation is looking into many things, such as toxic materials and those materials being removed by painting them over,” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told reporters.

U.S. officials began predicting over the weekend, however, that the Saudis would inevitably admit complicity in Khashoggi’s death and claim that it was a “botched operation,” said one person familiar with the discussions.

Finance CEOs pull out of Saudi ‘Davos in the Desert’ over Khashoggi case

Even as Trump appeared to soften his stance on Saudi Arabia, some of his allies in Congress have broken sharply with the White House.

Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) was a leading voice of anger Tuesday, calling the Saudi crown prince “toxic” and saying, “This guy has got to go.”

Graham’s comments, on Fox News Channel’s “Fox & Friends,” underscored the apparent frustration by some in Congress about the 33-year-old crown prince and his crackdowns on dissent.

“He had this guy murdered in the consulate in Turkey. Expect me to ignore it? I feel used and abused,” Graham said, referring to his previous advocacy for Saudi Arabia as a senator. “I was on the floor every time defending Saudi Arabia because they are a good ally.”

Turkish officials have released details of their investigation, including video that suggests that a team of Saudi agents was dispatched to Istanbul to capture Khashoggi or kill him.

The Turkish government has told the Trump administration that it has audio and video recordings of what occurred inside the consulate that day. U.S. officials have said this material ­supports the conclusion that Khashoggi was interrogated, tortured and killed.

Cunningham reported from Istanbul. Kareem Fahim in Istanbul and John Wagner and Brian Murphy in Washington contributed to this report.

WorldViews: Trump joins Saudi Arabia’s Khashoggi coverup

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