WASHINGTON — President Trump told reporters in the Oval Office on Wednesday that he is eager to get to the bottom of the disappearance of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Trump hinted answers will be coming soon and suggested the U.S. response to any findings will have to account for the strategic importance of the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia.
“They’re an important ally. But I want to find out what happened, where is the fault, and we will probably know that by the end of the week,” Trump said.
Khashoggi went missing after visiting the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey. The Turkish government has alleged that a Saudi team was dispatched to kill Khashoggi, a Washington Post contributor who has criticized the Saudi monarchy.
Saudi Arabia initially denied killing Khashoggi, but recent news reports say the Gulf nation may admit he died during a botched interrogation.
Trump has faced criticism for floating a theory that Khashoggi may have been killed by “rogue killers” and placing limits on the scope of the American response. The president has repeatedly stressed that he’s not eager to cancel arms sales to Saudi Arabia if the country is found responsible for Khashoggi’s death. He reiterated that position in the Oval Office on Wednesday while rejecting the notion he’s protecting the Saudis.
“I’m not giving cover at all. And with that being said, Saudi Arabia has been a very important ally of ours in the Middle East. We are stopping Iran,” Trump said.
The White House has had a strong relationship with Saudi Arabia since Trump took office last year. Critics have repeatedly raised concerns about whether financial ties between Trump’s real estate company and the Saudis may be influencing the president. Trump took to Twitter on Monday to declare he has “no financial interests in Saudi Arabia.”
“Any suggestion that I have is just more FAKE NEWS (of which there is plenty)!” Trump wrote.
However, by his own admission, Trump’s company has taken in tens of millions of dollars from individual Saudi customers.
Apart from any potential financial intrigue, there are strategic reasons for handling the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia with care. The country is central to several major U.S. foreign policy goals in the Middle East, including curbing Iranian influence, making a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians, and mitigating the humanitarian crisis in Yemen where Saudi-led airstrikes have killed thousands of civilians. Sources close to the White House argue that the administration is fully cognizant of Saudi Arabia’s autocratic tendencies, but that addressing those concerns needs to be balanced with other strategic priorities.
So far, the White House response has consisted of pushing for Saudi Arabia to conduct an investigation with Turkish participation. That effort is being led by Trump and three of his closest advisers. Trump has been heading the push and communicating with the Saudi king. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who traveled to Saudi Arabia and Turkey on Tuesday, is leading the rest of the team in working on the Khashoggi situation. That team includes National Security Adviser John Bolton, who is coordinating with Trump, and Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, who is leveraging his close relationship with the crown prince.
Trump would not say whether U.S. intelligence agencies are investigating the matter.
“I’m not going to tell you,” he said when a reporter asked if he had dispatched the FBI to participate.
The Turkish evidence that the Saudis killed Khashoggi allegedly includes audio of the journalist’s death. Trump told reporters that the United States has asked to see this footage “if it exists” and suggested that he would know more when Pompeo is back in the United States late Wednesday evening.
“I’m not sure yet that it exists, probably does, possibly does. I’ll have a full report on that from Mike when he comes back,” Trump said of the footage. “That’s going to be the first question I ask.”