President Donald Trump is suggesting that “rogue killers” may be responsible for whatever happened to missing Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. (Oct. 15)
WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump suggested Monday that “rogue killers’ may have been involved in the disappearance of dissident journalist and U.S. resident, Jamal Khashoggi.
Speaking to reporters before departing for Florida, Trump said he had spoken to the King of Saudi Arabia and that he had ”firmly denied” any involvement with Khashoggi’s disappearance or alleged murder. Trump seemed to accept the king’s denials and even floated a theory that “rogue killers” could have been involved.
Trump said the king “didn’t really know” what happened to Khashoggi and then added: “I don’t wanna get into his mind. But it sounded to me like maybe these could have been rogue killers, who knows.”
Critics slammed Trump’s comments as offering appeasement and credence to a ruthless regime.
“It’s an unambiguous green light to the world’s despots & dictators that they can exact justice however they see fit, wherever they see fit,” tweeted Ned Price, a former CIA analyst who left the agency in 2017 to protest what he called the Trump administration’s “disregard” for the U.S. intelligence community.
Earlier Monday, Trump tweeted that he had dispatched his top diplomat to meet with the king of Saudi Arabia amid demands from Congress to confront the Middle Eastern ally over Khashoggi’s disappearance.
“I’ve asked Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to immediately get on a plane, go to Saudi Arabia, go to other places if necessary,” Trump told reporters.
Trump said his administration was “trying to get to the bottom of it very soon” and suggested Pompeo may also travel to Turkey to further probe the matter.
Khashoggi vanished more than a week ago in Istanbul, after he entered Saudi Arabia’s consulate there for some routine paperwork.
Turkish officials allege Khashoggi, a critic of the Saudi regime living in the U.S., was killed in the compound. They reportedly have audio and video to support their allegations. Saudi officials say he left the building unharmed, but they have not produced any evidence to back their claim.
In its account of Trump’s call to the king, the Saudi Arabian government said the U.S. president praised the joint Saudi-Turkish investigation into Khashoggi’s disappearance and the “keenness of the Kingdom’s leadership to clarify all relevant facts.”
Pompeo left Washington for Riyadh just after noon on Monday. His spokeswoman, Heather Nauert, said Trump called the secretary Sunday evening and asked him to have a “face to face” meetings with the Saudi leadership.
“Determining what happened to Jamal Khashoggi is something of great importance to the president,” Nauert told reporters aboard Pompeo’s flight. “Sec. Pompeo looks forward to meeting with King Salman when he arrives.”
It’s unclear what Trump hopes to accomplish by sending Pompeo to meet with Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud. The Saudi regime has come under intense pressure to prove that Khashoggi left the consulate alive. But it’s Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, who wields the real power in the country. The king is the prince’s 82-year-old father.
Aaron David Miller, director of the Middle East program at the Woodrow Wilson Center, a Washington think tank, suggested Pompeo’s trip was a delaying tactic to avoid confronting a thorny diplomatic situation.
If the king denied involvement to Trump, do you think he’s going to say any different to Mike Pompeo,” Miller tweeted. “More delay and refusal to take decisions that need to be made.”
Trump has oscillated between threatening “severe punishment” against the Saudi regime to downplaying the importance of Khashoggi’s fate. He noted last week, for example, that Khashoggi is not a U.S. citizen and that the incident occurred in Turkey.
And he has swatted away multiple questions about whether his administration should cancel $110 billion in weapons sales to Saudi Arabia if the regime is found responsible for murdering Khashoggi.
In an interview with CBS’s 60 Minutes that aired Sunday, Trump took a harder line.
“There’s a lot at stake,” he said. “And maybe especially so because this man was a reporter. There’s something — you’ll be surprised to hear me say that. There’s something really terrible and disgusting about that if that were the case … We’re going to get to the bottom of it and there will be severe punishment.”
The Associated Press reported Monday that a team of investigators entered the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul for what Turkish officials called a joint inspection of the building where Khashoggi disappeared nearly two weeks ago.
The team arrived by unmarked police cars at the consulate and said nothing to journalists waiting outside as they entered the building. Police then pushed back journalists from the front of the consulate, where they’ve been stationed for days, setting up a new cordon to keep them away. The makeup of the investigative team that entered the diplomatic compound was not immediately clear, according to the AP.
Contributing: David Jackson
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