Trump administration ramps up rhetoric over missing Saudi journalist

Posted at 11:18 AM, Oct 10, 2018
and last updated 2018-10-10 14:42:13-04

American officials on Wednesday sharply escalated their public demands on the government of Saudi Arabia to reveal more of what it knows about the disappearance of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, even as they stopped short of assigning blame to Riyadh for his murder.

“We’re demanding everything. We want to see what’s going on here. It’s a bad situation,” President Donald Trump said in the Oval Office, where he was receiving an update on a hurricane bearing down on Florida.

The President said he had contacted the “highest levels” of the Saudi government — presumably King Salman — to address the matter. And he revealed he planned to invite Khashoggi’s fiancee Hatice Cengiz, who appealed for Trump’s help in an open letter, to the White House.

“This is a bad situation. We cannot let this happen — to reporters, to anybody, we can’t let this happen. And we’re going to get to the bottom of it,” Trump said.

Still, Trump acknowledged there was little clarity on what precisely happened to Khashoggi, who went missing after visiting the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2 to obtain documents for his marriage. And he alluded to the sensitivities surrounding the matter, saying he’d prefer not to reveal which Saudi officials he spoke to about it.

“I have to find out who did it,” Trump said. “People saw him go in but they didn’t see him come out.”

The scaled up pressure came after members of Congress demanded the administration confront Saudi Arabia, a major US security and trading partner that Trump has embraced. His first foreign stop as President was in Riyadh, where he was welcomed with high pomp, including massive projections of his face alongside King Salman on the Ritz Carlton hotel where he was staying.

Trump said Wednesday he found King Salman to be a “good man” with whom he speaks often, but acknowledged the Khashoggi case could prove to be an irritant.

“We have always had a very good relationship,” he said. “I’m not happy about this.”

Members of Trump’s administration — including son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner — have also fostered close relationships with the kingdom’s de facto leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who has pushed through reforms in the kingdom but drawn scrutiny for a bloody crackdown on dissent. Last year he oversaw the imprisonment of dozens of prominent Saudis in the very Ritz hotel Trump stayed during his visit.

As a columnist for The Washington Post, Khashoggi was a frequent critic of the regime in Riyadh.

Kushner and national security adviser John Bolton phoned Mohammed bin Salman on Tuesday, according to the White House. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also spoke with the 33-year-old crown prince.

“In both calls they asked for more details and for the Saudi government to be transparent in the investigation process,” press secretary Sarah Sanders said in a statement.

On Saturday, Turkish officials told the Washington Post and Reuters that Khashoggi had been killed inside the Saudi consulate. CNN has not been able to independently confirm these reports, and the Saudi government has denied them.

Lawmakers on Wednesday spoke in harsh terms about the case, warning of consequences if the Saudi regime is found to have ordered the killing.

“I’ve never been more disturbed than I am right now,” said Sen. Lindsay Graham, the South Carolina Republican who is close to Trump. “If this did in fact happen, if this man was murdered in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, that would cross every line of normality in the international community. If it did happen, there would be hell to pay.”

Speaking during a radio interview earlier on Wednesday, Vice President Mike Pence said the US “stands ready to assist in any way” in the investigation.

“The free world deserves answers,” Pence said. “And the reports that a Saudi Arabian journalist may have been tragically murdered in Turkey should be deeply concerning to everyone who cherishes a freedom of the press and human rights across the globe.”

As of Wednesday, however, it did not appear as if Saudi Arabia or Turkey had made a formal request to the FBI for assistance in the investigation.