Trump questions Saudi account on Khashoggi but praises Crown Prince

Posted at 6:54 AM, Oct 21, 2018
and last updated 2018-10-21 06:57:17-04

Saudi Arabia’s explanation of how journalist Jamal Khashoggi died is “all over the place,” US President Donald Trump has told the Washington Post in a new interview. However, the President also praised Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman, calling him a “strong person” with “very good control.”

In a Washington Post article published late Saturday, the US President said that “obviously there’s been deception and there’s been lies,” when asked about Saudi Arabia’s account of the killing of Khashoggi inside their Istanbul consulate almost three weeks ago. “Their stories are all over the place,” Trump said.

But Trump was supportive of Crown Prince’s leadership, and reiterated the importance of economic ties between the two countries.

“He’s seen as a person who can keep things under check,” Trump said of Bin Salman, adding “I mean that in a positive way.”

“He truly loves his country,” said Trump, who added that he hadn’t “heard either way” whether the Crown Prince was responsible for Khashoggi’s killing.

Trump’s ambivalent comments come as an increasingly vocal chorus of international voices question Saudi Arabia’s story.

Statements from the UN, the EU and a number of western governments have criticized Riyadh’s handling of the case, which has gone from blanket denials of any involvement to an admission Saturday morning that the journalist was, in fact, killed while visiting the Saudi diplomatic compound in the Turkish city.

The official Saudi line is that Khashoggi died accidentally after a confrontation in the consulate descended into a brawl.

A source with close connections to the Saudi Royal Palace told CNN that Saudis concluded that Khashoggi’s cause of death was a chokehold or strangulation, but officials provided no evidence to support the conclusion.

The altercation involved multiple Saudi officials at the country’s consulate in Istanbul, according to the statement. It said the suspects later tried to cover up the incident.

Meanwhile Turkish officials say 15 Saudis traveled to Istanbul on the day of Khashoggi’s disappearance. They say privately that he was dismembered at the consulate, and Saudi authorities have failed to produce his body or say where they believe it to be.

A source close to the Saudi Royal Palace told CNN that the location of Khashoggi’s body is not known to the Saudis. The source said the body was handed over to a local “collaborator” after the killing, adding that it is not at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. CNN cannot verify the assertion.

‘Give us Jamal’

Speaking to reporters outside Saudi Arabia’s consulate in Istanbul on Saturday, Turan Kislakci, the head of the Turkish-Arab Media Association and a friend of Khashoggi, called on Saudi Arabia to hand over the journalist’s body.

“Give us Jamal, so we can have a funeral for him. So that all people who care about him, world leaders, can come here to Istanbul for the funeral,” he said.

Khashoggi’s fiancée, Hatice Cengiz, reacted to the news of his death on Twitter on Saturday evening.

She tweeted footage of Khashoggi speaking and being filmed when a cat unexpectedly jumps into his lap. He looks down and smiles. Khashoggi and the film crew laugh.

“They took your bodily presence from my world,” Cengiz wrote. “But your beautiful laugh will remain in my soul forever.”

Explanations ‘lack credibility’

While the administration of US President Donald Trump continues to give the Saudi explanation at least some benefit of the doubt, some of the US’ longest-standing allies have been sharply critical of the Kingdom’s version of events.

Canada released a brief statement, calling Riyadh’s statement into question.

“The explanations offered to date lack consistency and credibility,” Canadian Minister of Foreign Affairs Chrystia Freeland said in a statement.

“We reiterate our call for a thorough investigation, in full collaboration with the Turkish authorities, and a full and rigorous accounting of the circumstances surrounding Mr. Khashoggi’s death.

“Those responsible for the killing must be held to account and must face justice.”

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres was “deeply troubled” by the explanation, his spokesman said, and in a sharp rebuke, German Chancellor Angela Merkel rejected the Saudi statement, saying that her government expected “transparency in terms of death and background. Those responsible must be held accountable. The information given at the consulates in Istanbul is insufficient.”

The European Union, in a statement from its high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, Federica Mogherini, said it insists on “the need for continued thorough, credible and transparent investigation, shedding proper clarity on the circumstances of the killing and ensuring full accountability of all those responsible for it.”

Saudi friends praise ‘transparency’

After the Saudi released the results of its preliminary investigation Saturday, its allies across the region commended it for its “transparency.”

In a statement, UAE Minister of Foreign Affairs Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan “commended King Salman for his great efforts to explore the truth and seek legal accountability, which he said reflects the transparency and justice in his decision-making on the case.”

Similar statements from Egypt, Bahrain, Jordan, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and the Palestinian Authority expressed solidarity with the Saudi position.

Turkey: We will not allow a coverup

Omer Celik, a senior official in Turkey’s ruling political party, also questioned the credibility of Saudi Arabia’s explanation for Khashoggi’s death.

“We are not pre-emptively blaming anyone but we will also not allow a coverup,” Celik said on Saturday, in the first official Turkish reaction to Saudi Arabia’s midnight statement saying Khashoggi’s death was accidental.

“It is a matter of honor for us that this is uncovered. We will shed light on this using all means we have. That is the will of our President.”

Trump, however, again indicated to journalists that he believed the Saudi account was credible, although he added that some questions remained, including the whereabouts of Khashoggi’s remains.

He has previously defended Saudi Arabia’s King Salman and its de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, saying that the two men had strongly denied knowledge of, or involvement in, Khashoggi’s disappearance.

Senator: Trump position ‘lack of leadership’

Some members of the US Congress were also critical of the Saudi explanation.

“To say that I am skeptical of the new Saudi narrative about Mr. Khashoggi is an understatement,” South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Republican, said on Twitter.

Senate Intelligence Committee ranking member Mark Warner told CNN the explanation “does not withstand scrutiny and raises more questions than it answers,” and called for a “comprehensive and truly independent investigation.”

“The Trump administration’s position once again demonstrates a lack of leadership, undercutting US leverage, interests and our values.”

Khashoggi’s former employer, the Washington Post, called the Saudi story a “coverup.”

The publisher and chief executive of the Post, for whom Khashoggi was a contributing columnist, cast doubt on Saudi Arabia’s explanation.

“The government of Saudi Arabia has shamefully and repeatedly offered one lie after another in the nearly three weeks since Jamal Khashoggi disappeared in their Istanbul consulate,” Fred Ryan said in a statement published on Twitter.

“Offering no proof, and contrary to all available evidence, they now expect the world to believe that Jamal died in a fight following a discussion. This is not an explanation; it is a coverup,” Ryan said.