Donald Trump has promised “severe punishment” for Saudi Arabia if it is proven that the kingdom was responsible for murdering Jamal Khashoggi, the missing journalist.
The US president said he was “very upset and angry” about the case and indicated that he was not fully convinced by the Saudis’ repeated claims of innocence.
“Could it be them? Yes,” he said. “In the not too distant future I think we’ll know an answer,” Trump told CBS News in an a "60 Minutes" interview that will air on Sunday. “We’re going to get to the bottom of it and there will be severe punishment.”
Mr Khashoggi, who would have turned 60 on Saturday, has not been seen since he went into the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2.
Turkish officials claim to have tapes of Saudi operatives torturing and murdering Mr Khashoggi, possibly recorded by the journalist’s own Apple Watch. Saudi Arabia has vehemently denied involvement in the journalists’ disappearance.
While Mr Trump said he would punish Saudi Arabia, he said he would not cancel arms sales to the kingdom in response, as a bipartisan group of US senators have demanded. “I don’t want to hurt jobs,” he said.
Mr Trump, who has previously referred to journalists as “enemies of the people”, said it was “really terrible and disgusting” that a journalist had been targeted.
Sources close to the royal court said the inner circle of Mohammed bin Salman, the Saudi crown prince, was shocked at the speed and intensity at which global anger over Mr Khashoggi’s disappearance turned towards Saudi Arabia.
"There will be severe punishment." In his first 60 Minutes interview since taking office, President Trump tells Lesley Stahl that if Saudi Arabia is found to be responsible for journalist Jamal Khashoggi's death, there will be consequences. https://t.co/BRZfIPHbNY pic.twitter.com/s6X98AylBR
— 60 Minutes (@60Minutes) October 13, 2018
After eleven days of issuing blanket denials of responsibility but offering little evidence of its innocence, the Saudi government is now trying to chart a more proactive course to deal with the fallout while also trying to shield Crown Prince Mohammed’s own reputation.
The crown prince has summoned home the Saudi ambassador in Washington, his younger brother Prince Khalid bin Salman, a former fighter pilot, for consultations on how to appease both the White House and Congress.
He also dispatched a team of Saudi officials to Ankara to meet with the Turkish government as part of a newly-formed “joint working group” to look into what happened to Mr Khashoggi.
The Saudi government is pointing to the joint group as evidence it is taking the situation seriously and hopes that the appearance of an investigative process will buy some time in the short term.
In a statement on Saturday, Prince Abdulaziz bin Saud, the Saudi interior minister, “praised the cooperation with the brothers in Turkey through the Joint Investigation Commission and other official channels”.
His statement, which also denounced the “lies and baseless allegations” against the kingdom, was the first public comment by a Saudi minister since the crisis began on October 2.
A theory discussed in pro-Saudi circles is that Riyadh will try to get the Turks to agree to a joint statement explaining Mr Khashoggi’s death in a way that causes minimal damage to Crown Prince Mohammed.
One possibility is to say Mr Khashoggi died of a heart attack inside the consulate and his body was hidden by panicked diplomatic staff.
It is not clear that Turkey could agree to a sanitised version of events, given that Turkish officials have leaked lurid claims to the press of Saudi spies and soldiers allegedly murdering Mr Khashoggi.
And on Saturday evening, Ankara appeared to harden its position, accusing Saudi Arabia of failing to cooperate with the probe amid claims it was stalling over a deal to allow a search of the consulate.
Mevlut Cavusoglu, Turkish foreign minister, said: "We still have not seen cooperation in order to ensure a smooth investigation and bring everything to light. We want to see this."
But Turkey has not made any official allegations nor presented any public evidence, leaving some diplomatic room for a compromise. Ties between Turkey and Saudi Arabia have been strained in recent years but neither regional power wants a complete breakdown in relations and a joint statement could offer a way out.
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If Turkey refuses to go along and presents proof that Mr Khashoggi was murdered, the Saudi government may try to blame the killing on rogue elements of the security services and say Crown Prince Mohammed did not know of their plans. Turkish officials told Middle East Eye they suspected Saudi Arabia may take this course.
“It is not a feasible option, but at present, it looks like it’s the only option and one that might head off the Senate’s pursuit of the Global Magnitsky Act,” Dr Neil Quilliam, senior research fellow at Chatham House.
American senators of both parties have banded together to trigger an investigation under the Global Magnitsky Act, a US law named after a Russian accountant murdered by the Kremlin. The law forces the White House to investigate suspected kidnappings and killings by foreign governments and to consider sanctions.
The senators have said the probe should look at whether the “highest ranking officials in the government of Saudi Arabia” were involved in Mr Khashoggi’s death.
Blaming the security services comes with its own risks. Turkey may demand Saudi Arabia hand over the alleged killers for prosecution, potentially causing a backlash for Crown Prince Mohammed at home.
The prince would also be loath to say publicly that he was not fully in charge of the Saudi military. “He would face the question: does this guy have control over his own security forces? That in some ways is a worse question for MBS to face,” said Richard LeBaron, non-resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.
For now, the government looks set to hunker down and try to get through the Riyadh summit, scheduled for October 23. They will have been heartened to see that Christine Lagarde, the head of the IMF, said she still planned to attend the summit even though she was “horrified” by reports of Mr Khashoggi’s death.