ISTANBUL — President Trump said Tuesday that Saudi officials had engaged in the “worst coverup ever” after the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi earlier this month, as the administration took its first concrete step to penalize Saudi Arabia, revoking visas for its agents implicated in the killing.
That initial penalty was modest, since 18 of the 21 Saudi suspects were already under arrest, and Trump said he would “leave it up to Congress” to determine how best to punish the kingdom for the killing inside its Istanbul consulate.
Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, on Tuesday labeled the killing “planned” and “brutal” and called on Saudi Arabia to extradite the detained suspects to Turkey to face justice. Erdogan’s highly anticipated comments, during a speech to his ruling party in the capital, Ankara, contradicted Saudi accounts that Khashoggi was killed when an argument inside the consulate escalated into a fistfight.
The Turkish leader did not directly accuse the Saudi leadership of involvement in the killing but strongly indicated that the Saudi investigation had not reached high enough into the kingdom’s ruling circles.
“It will not satisfy the public by just pinning this kind of matter on a few security and intelligence officers,” he said. “Covering up this kind of savagery will hurt the conscience of all humanity.”
Providing several new details, Erdogan described an operation in which Saudi agents removed the hard disk on a consulate camera and one team visited wooded areas in and around Istanbul “for reconnaissance” before the killing. These were areas that Turkish police later focused on as they searched for Khashoggi’s body.
Speaking in the Oval Office, Trump skewered the Saudis, saying, “They had a very bad original concept, it was carried out poorly, and the coverup was the worst in the history of coverups.” He added, “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.”
The State Department said the visa penalties would affect 21 Saudis. Most already have visas, and their documents are being revoked. Some who do not have visas are now ineligible for them, officials said.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who announced the action, said he is also working with the Treasury Department on whether to impose sanctions on those responsible for the journalist’s death.
“These penalties will not be the last word on this matter from the United States,” Pompeo said during a briefing at the State Department. “We will continue to explore additional measures to hold those responsible accountable.”
The killing of Khashoggi, a critic of the Saudi government and a contributing columnist for The Washington Post, has provoked international outrage over Saudi Arabia’s conduct and raised urgent questions about whether the kingdom’s crown prince and de facto ruler, Mohammed bin Salman, was involved in the plot.
Mohammed on Tuesday received a standing ovation when he appeared at a major investment conference in Riyadh — which some Western executives and leaders have withdrawn from because of the controversy — but the crown prince did not address the crowd.
Separately on Tuesday, the official Saudi Press Agency published photos of the Saudi monarch, King Salman, and the crown prince meeting two members of Khashoggi’s family, including his son.
One photo showed the son, Salah, looking ashen-faced and shaking hands with Mohammed as a video cameraman stood in the background. Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Ministry wrote on Twitter that the leaders shared “their deepest condolences and sympathy to the family of Jamal Khashoggi, may God rest his soul.”
For more than two weeks after Khashoggi disappeared while visiting the consulate, Saudi officials repeatedly said that he had left the mission alive and that they had no information about his whereabouts. Early Saturday, the Saudi officials did an abrupt reversal, acknowledging he had been killed inside the consulate but blaming the matter on a “rogue” operation that ended in a deadly brawl.
“Saudi Arabia took an important step by accepting the murder,” Erdogan said in his speech. “After this, we expect them to reveal those responsible for this matter. We have information that the murder is not instant, but planned,” he said.
Erdogan directly addressed King Salman, noticeably making no mention of the 33-year-old crown prince. Erdogan requested that the 18 Saudi suspects arrested so far be put on trial in Istanbul and said it was important that any Saudi investigation be carried out “by an impartial and fair delegation” with no connections to the killing.
The Turkish president did not address some of the most explosive allegations that have surfaced during the investigation — notably that Khashoggi was dismembered after he was killed. And he did not present any of the evidence that Turkey had gathered so far, including audio recordings that investigators are said to possess that captured the moments when Khashoggi was killed.
But Erdogan provided the most detailed timeline yet of the days and hours leading up to the killing three weeks ago.
In the timeline he laid out, the team of Saudi agents dispatched to Istanbul had carefully prepared for Khashoggi’s death.
The team was first alerted, Erdogan said, after Khashoggi visited the consulate on Sept. 28.
“Planning and the work of a road map starts here,” the president said. Three days later, on Oct. 1, teams of Saudi agents begin arriving in Istanbul, he said, with one team performing reconnaissance in nearby wooded areas. The Saudi team consisted of “intelligence, security and forensic workers,” Erdogan said.
Khashoggi entered the mission at 1:14 p.m. Oct. 2. When he had not emerged a few hours later, his fiancee, Hatice Cengiz, who was waiting for him outside, alerted authorities and an investigation began, Erdogan said. Camera footage showed that Khashoggi never left, he added.
Erdogan highlighted attempts by the Saudis to obstruct or cover up the killing, including a ruse involving a Saudi agent who was dressed like Khashoggi and captured on camera exiting the consulate.
“Why did 15 people gather in Istanbul the day of the murder? Who did these people receive orders from?” he asked. “Why was the consulate opened not immediately, but days later, for investigation? When the murder was obvious, why were inconsistent explanations given?”
“Why is the body still not found?”
During Erdogan’s address Tuesday, lawmakers from his party sat mostly silent. But when he shifted to his demands of the Saudi royals, the audience cheered enthusiastically at the mention of Turkey’s sovereignty and authority to prosecute the suspects.
In a phone call to Khashoggi’s family on Tuesday, Erdogan expressed his condolences for the journalist’s death and promised to continue pursuing the investigation, according to a person familiar with the conversation.
The Khashoggi case has embarrassed the Trump administration, which regards the crown prince as one of its closest Arab allies and Saudi Arabia as a cornerstone of the U.S. strategy to counter Iran. On Monday, CIA Director Gina Haspel headed to Turkey, where she is expected to assess the strength of the evidence that Turkish officials have collected.
Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said Tuesday that the kingdom was committed to a “comprehensive investigation” into the journalist’s death and had dispatched a team to Turkey.
Speaking in Indonesia on Tuesday, Jubeir said the Saudi investigators had “uncovered evidence of a murder.” He also vowed to put mechanisms in place that would prevent similar incidents in the future, without expanding upon what those would be.
Khashoggi’s death has tarnished the global reputation of the crown prince, who has eased social restrictions at home while pursuing an unrelenting crackdown on rivals and critics, imprisoning hundreds. Mohammed has also tried to lure exiled dissidents such as Khashoggi, who lived in Virginia, back to Saudi Arabia, Khashoggi’s friends and other exiles have said.
As Saudi Arabia on Tuesday opened its landmark business conference — part of the crown prince’s plan to diversify the economy and reduce reliance on oil revenue — the country’s Foreign Ministry released video of him inside a crowd of attendees, posing for a selfie.
Despite the pullout of several high-profile participants, including U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and International Monetary Fund Managing Director Christine Lagarde, the event was packed with people from across the Middle East, as well as from China, India and the United States.
Khashoggi’s death was acknowledged at the beginning of the conference by a panel moderator, Lubna Olayan, a prominent Saudi business leader who said she had known the journalist.
“I want to tell all our foreign guests, for whose presence with us this morning we are very grateful, that the terrible acts reported in recent weeks are alien to our culture and our DNA,” she said.
El-Ghobashy reported from Ankara and Hudson from Washington. Louisa Loveluck in Beirut, Zeynep Karatas in Istanbul and John Wagner and Josh Dawsey in Washington contributed to this report.