The Washington Post columnist was last seen in public when he entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in Turkey on October 2. Previously, Saudi authorities had maintained Khashoggi left the consulate the same afternoon of his visit, but they provided no evidence to support the claim.
Trump’s words may be a bid to back Riyadh’s attempts to distance itself from Khashoggi’s possible murder. He spoke after he dispatched Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to Riyadh, where he is expected to meet with Saudi King Salman on Tuesday to discuss the situation.
One source said the report will likely conclude that the operation was carried out without clearance and transparency and that those involved will be held responsible. A source acknowledged that the report is still being prepared and cautioned that things could change.
On Monday, conflicting reports over Khashoggi’s disappearance prompted his family to call for an inquiry.
“The strong moral and legal responsibility which our father instilled in us obliges us to call for the establishment of an independent and impartial international commission to inquire into the circumstances of his death,” they said in a statement.
It added that they were “sadly and anxiously following the conflicting news regarding the fate of our father after losing contact with him two weeks ago, when he disappeared after entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.”
The disappearance of Khashoggi, a former Saudi royal insider who became a critic of the regime and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, comes amid a wave of arrests of Saudi critics, allegedly steered by the King’s son.
The crackdowns have targeted clerics, journalists, academics and activists, some of whom were detained outside Saudi Arabia.
If the Kingdom does claim that Khashoggi’s murder was the result of unauthorized agents conducting a botched interrogation and snatch operation, international focus will likely shift back to a group of Saudis that Turkish officials claim is culpable for his disappearance.
Turkish authorities said they believed that 15 Saudi men who arrived in Istanbul on October 2 were connected to Khashoggi’s disappearance and possible murder. At least some of them appear to have high-level connections in the Saudi government.
Of particular interest would be the movements of Salah Muhammed al-Tubaiqi, who is listed on an official Saudi health website as the head of the forensic medicine department at the interior ministry.
If the autopsy specialist left Saudi Arabia for Istanbul before Khashoggi entered the consulate, it might be inferred that any killing was premeditated and not the result of a botched interrogation.
On Friday, a source familiar with the investigation told CNN that Turkish authorities have audio and visual evidence that shows journalist Khashoggi was killed inside the consulate.
Khashoggi entered the consulate to collect papers needed for his planned marriage to Hatice Cengiz, who was waiting outside the consulate and says she did not see him re-emerge.
Smoothing out the friction
However, King Salman called Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the weekend to discuss the case. The two leaders agreed on a joint working group to look into the journalist’s disappearance.
On Monday evening CNN reporters saw Turkish investigators, including forensics officers, enter the consulate, where they stayed for nine hours before leaving. Saudi officials granted permission for the premises to be searched, a Turkish diplomatic source told CNN. Police were seen cordoning off the area before investigators arrived. Turkish officials also wanted to search the consul general’s residence.
But it remained unclear what evidence would remain nearly two weeks after Khashoggi’s disappearance. CNN reporters saw a cleaning crew entering the consulate earlier on Monday before investigators arrived.
Trump’s suggestion that rogue agents might be responsible for his disappearance was made after a phone call with the King Salman.
“It wasn’t like there was a question in his mind. The denial was very strong,” Trump said of the King.
“We are going to try to get to the bottom of it very soon,” Trump added. “But his was a flat denial.”
Last week, Trump said he was reluctant to take action, particularly on the issue of arms sales. “There are other things we can do,” he told reporters at the White House.
The US signed a nearly $110 billion defense deal with Saudi Arabia in May 2017, when Trump made Saudi Arabia a stop on his first foreign trip as president. The stop was seen, in part, as an endorsement of the strong relationship between Trump, Jared Kushner — his son-in-law and senior adviser — and bin Salman.
However, the UK, France and Germany have demanded a “credible investigation” into the case and international firms are pulling out of the Future Investment Initiative conference.
Dubbed “Davos in the Desert” and due to take place later this month in Riyadh, it will be hosted by Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, Prince bin Salman.
Also, any efforts to not push hard on the issue may be thwarted by Congress, which has had a testy relationship with Saudi Arabia.
On Monday, Democratic lawmakers slammed Trump for using the term “rogue killers.”
“Absolutely extraordinary they were able to enlist the President of the United States as their PR agent to float it,” he added.
Also, the Turkish government has staked its credibility on the case, with Erdogan saying he is personally “chasing” the investigation.