President Donald Trump says the U.S. is asking Turkey for audio and video relating to missing Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi “if it exists.” The president on Wednesday called Saudi Arabia an important ally, noting it is an important customer for U.S. military exports. Turkish officials have said Khashoggi was murdered in the Saudis’ Istanbul consulate, which Saudi officials have denied.
Asked about a recording described by the Turkish newspaper Yeni Safak, Trump said, “We’ve asked for it, if it exists.” At another point, he said, “I’m not sure yet that it exists.”
Trump, who threatened punishment for Saudi Arabia when Khashoggi’s disappearance first came to light two weeks ago, has repeatedly noted Saudi leaders’ denials since then and insisted the U.S. must know the facts before taking action.
But when asked if he was “giving cover” to the Saudi leaders, he said Wednesday that he was not.
“No, not at all,” he declared.
Saudi Arabia, a key U.S. ally in the Mideast, is under pressure to explain what happened to Khashoggi, a Washington Post contributor living in the U.S. who had been critical of the crown prince. Turkish officials have said he was murdered, and the Turkish newspaper’s report said an audio recording revealed gory details about Khashoggi’s demise inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul.
Trump has repeated denials by the Saudi king and crown prince that they knew anything about Khashoggi’s fate, and he has warned of a rush to judgment.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, dispatched by Trump to the region, said the U.S. takes Khashoggi’s disappearance seriously.
In an interview with The Associated Press on Tuesday, Trump compared the case of Khashoggi to the allegations of sexual assault leveled against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh during his confirmation hearing. Kavanaugh denied the allegations and was confirmed to the court.
“I think we have to find out what happened first,” Trump said. “Here we go again with, you know, you’re guilty until proven innocent. I don’t like that. We just went through that with Justice Kavanaugh and he was innocent all the way as far as I’m concerned.”
Trump’s remarks were his most robust defense yet of the Saudis. They put the president at odds with other key allies and with some leaders in his Republican Party who have condemned the Saudi leadership for what they say is an obvious role in the case. Trump appeared willing to resist the pressure to follow suit, accepting Saudi denials and their pledge to investigate.
The AP’s Oval Office interview came not long after Trump spoke Tuesday with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. He spoke by phone a day earlier with King Salman, and he said both deny any knowledge of what happened to Khashoggi.
After speaking with the king, Trump floated the idea that “rogue killers” may have been responsible for the disappearance. The president told the AP on Tuesday that that description was informed by his “feeling” from his conversation with Salman and that the king did not use the term.
In Turkey on Tuesday, a high-level Turkish official told the AP that police investigators searching the Saudi Consulate had found evidence that Khashoggi was killed there.
Pompeo met with the king and crown prince in Riyadh and said the Saudis had already started a “serious and credible investigation” and seemed to suggest it could lead to people within the kingdom. The secretary of state noted that the Saudi leaders, while denying knowledge of anything that occurred inside the consulate, had committed to accountability “including for Saudi Arabia’s senior leaders or senior officials.”
Trump said he hoped the Saudis’ own investigation of Khashoggi’s disappearance would be concluded in “less than a week.”
In the meantime, there were signs at home that Trump’s party was growing uncomfortable with his willingness to defend the Saudis.
In an interview with Fox News, a prominent Trump ally in the Senate called on Saudi Arabia to reject the crown prince, known as MBS, who rose to power last year and has aggressively sought to soften the kingdom’s image abroad and attract foreign investment.
“This guy has got to go,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, turning to speak to the camera. “Saudi Arabia, if you’re listening, there are a lot of good people you can choose, but MBS has tainted your country and tainted himself.”
International leaders and business executives are severing or rethinking ties to the Saudi government after Khashoggi’s high-profile disappearance. Trump has resisted any action, pointing to huge U.S. weapons deals pending with Saudi Arabia and saying that sanctions could end up hurting the American economy.
He said it was too early to say whether he endorsed other countries’ actions. “I have to find out what happened,” he said. But his complaint about “guilty until proven innocent” and comparison to the Kavanaugh situation suggested he was giving the Saudis more leeway than other allies.
Khashoggi went to the consulate on Oct. 2 to get documents for his upcoming marriage to a Turkish woman while his fiancee waited outside. She and Turkish authorities say he never emerged and he has not been heard from since.