ISTANBUL — President Trump said Thursday it appears that Jamal Khashoggi is dead and warned that his administration could consider “very severe” measures against Saudi Arabia, sharply raising pressures on the kingdom as it prepares its own accounting of the journalist’s disappearance.
Trump’s remarks reflect the vacillating strategies and views in the White House over its response and possible punishments toward one of its key Middle East allies.
Trump has said any U.S. actions over Khashoggi’s disappearance must take into account the security and defense ties the United States has with the kingdom. But Trump also must contend with the international furor and calls within Republican ranks to take a harder line on Saudi Arabia.
As he boarded a flight to Montana for a political rally, Trump was asked by a journalist whether he believed Khashoggi was dead.
“It certainly looks that way to me,” he said. “It’s very sad.”
He added that Saudi Arabia could face a “very severe” U.S. response depending on the results of probes that include a self-run investigation by the kingdom into the disappearance of Khashoggi. Khashoggi, a Saudi citizen and Washington Post contributing columnist, was last seen in public entering the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2.
“I mean, it’s bad, bad stuff. But we’ll see what happens,” Trump said.
The United States is caught squarely between two long-standing partners.
Turkish officials say evidence indicated that Khashoggi was killed by Saudi agents. Saudi leaders deny having any knowledge of Khashoggi’s fate but promised to conduct their own inquiry into the case.
It is uncertain, however, whether a self-run inquest or conclusions by the Saudis could
quell international anger over Khashoggi’s disappearance. And any finding by Saudi Arabia could meet immediate skepticism about a country where the rulers typically are involved in every major decision.
A person close to the White House said Saudi officials are considering blaming Khashoggi’s death on Maj. Gen. Ahmed al-
Assiri, the deputy head of Saudi intelligence and a close adviser to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Assiri would be accused of mounting a rogue operation to kill Khashoggi, which would deflect blame from the crown prince, who is the de facto ruler of the kingdom. The person spoke on the condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak on behalf of the administration or the Saudi government. Assiri did not immediately respond to calls and messages seeking comment.
Before his intelligence posting, Assiri served for two years as the public face of Saudi Arabia’s military intervention in the war in Yemen. Assiri, who speaks fluent French and English, held regular news briefings on the state of the battle that were unusual for the Middle East and appeared designed to promote the professionalism of the Saudi war effort.
But as the Saudi aerial bombing campaign came under intensifying criticism for what human rights groups said was a reckless attitude toward civilian casualties, Assiri’s responses to questions about the civilian toll only reinforced the sense that the Saudis were being cavalier. “Why would we acknowledge something that doesn’t exist?” he said when asked by a reporter in 2015 about whether Saudi-led coalition strikes had killed noncombatants, despite mounting evidence that they had.
Assiri was replaced as spokesman in July 2017, according to the Saudi-owned al-Arabiya news channel.
Trump said the White House expected to have a Saudi account of the Khashoggi case “very soon.”
“And I think we’ll be making a statement, a very strong statement. But, we’re waiting for the results of about three different investigations, and we should be able to get to the bottom fairly soon,” said Trump, apparently referring to inquiries by Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the United States.
In an interview with the New York Times on Thursday afternoon, Trump expressed confidence in intelligence reports from multiple sources that strongly suggest a high-level Saudi role in Khashoggi’s assassination.
“Unless the miracle of all miracles happens, I would acknowledge that he’s dead,” Trump said. “That’s based on everything — intelligence coming from every side.”
The comments also point to a possible tougher stance by the White House after it sent a range of conflicting signals. In the past week, Trump left open the idea that “rogue killers” had carried out an attack on Khashoggi, and also warned against a rush to judgment about the Saudi rulers.
Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law, who has cultivated a relationship with Mohammed, has been urging Trump to stand by the Saudis and let them conduct their own investigation, according to two people in regular contact with the White House.
Earlier Thursday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urged the White House to allow “a few more days” for Saudi Arabia to issue its own report on Khashoggi, even as Turkish police sharply expanded their investigation.
Turkish authorities said they will search at least two rural areas outside Istanbul, local news agencies and a Turkish official said.
But in the administration’s first formal rebuke of Saudi Arabia over the Khashoggi case, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said Thursday that he would join many other political leaders and business executives who are canceling their participation in a major investment forum next week in the Saudi capital, Riyadh.
Mnuchin made the announcement after consulting with Trump and Pompeo. Hours earlier, finance chiefs from France, Britain and the Netherlands announced that they would not attend the Riyadh conference.
Trump eventually signed off on Mnuchin’s skipping the conference.
“You can’t give a Good Housekeeping seal of approval to the Saudis by letting Mnuchin go to the conference,” said one administration adviser, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal discussions.
Asked why the Saudis should be trusted to conduct a fair investigation, Pompeo — who held talks this week in Riyadh and in the Turkish capital, Ankara — said only that U.S. officials would evaluate the Saudi report as to whether “it’s truly accurate, fair and transparent” as promised during Pompeo’s talks in Riyadh.
In Turkey, meanwhile, police exploring the disappearance of 59-year-old Khashoggi — who they believe was killed inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul by a team of agents from Saudi Arabia — are reviewing security footage from the entrances to Istanbul’s Belgrad Forest, roughly 10 miles north of the city center, Turkish media reported.
They also expect to search farmland in Turkey’s Yalova province, which is about 60 miles from Istanbul.
A Turkish official confirmed that investigators had broadened their search for Khashoggi’s body to “gardens” around the Istanbul area. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss details of the case.
Up until now, the inquiry has focused on the consulate in Istanbul’s Levent district and the nearby residence of the Saudi consul general, Mohammed al-Otaibi, who left Turkey this week.
Still, leaks from Turkish officials to foreign and local media outlets have kept the spotlight on the Khashoggi affair.
Turkey’s pro-government Sabah newspaper published Thursday what it said were images from closed-circuit television of Maher Abdulaziz Mutreb — an apparent member of the Saudi security services who may have previously traveled with the crown prince — outside the consulate on the day Khashoggi went missing. Other images show Mutreb checking out of an Istanbul hotel and at Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport hours after Khashoggi was last seen in public.
Mutreb also appears to have been photographed with the crown prince on trips to France, Spain and the United States. A British document from 2007 lists a man by the same name working as a diplomat in London.
Turkish investigators have said they believe that Khashoggi was killed by a 15-man Saudi hit team soon after he entered the consulate on an adm inistrative errand on Oct. 2 and that his body was dismembered.
On Thursday, investigators left the consulate after a second search of the grounds, Turkey’s private DHA news agency reported. Turkey has not formally released any evidence to support its claims that a team of Saudi agents killed Khashoggi.
Wagner reported from Washington. Kareem Fahim and Zeynep Karatas in Istanbul and Josh Dawsey, Brian Murphy, Missy Ryan and Felicia Sonmez in Washington contributed to this report.