October 22, 2018 / 12:33 PM / 21 days ago

Trump says he remains unsatisfied with Saudi accounts on Khashoggi

WASHINGTON/ISTANBUL (Reuters) - U.S. President Donald Trump said on Monday that he was still not satisfied with what he has heard from Saudi Arabia about the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey, but did not want to lose investment from Riyadh.

Trump spoke with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the de facto ruler of the world’s top oil exporter, on Sunday. He told reporters on Monday that he has teams in Saudi Arabia and Turkey working on the case and would know more about it after they returned to Washington on Monday night or Tuesday.

CIA Director Gina Haspel was travelling to Turkey on Monday to work on the Khashoggi investigation, two sources familiar with the matter told Reuters.

“I am not satisfied with what I’ve heard,” Trump told reporters at the White House. “I don’t want to lose all that investment that’s been made in our country. But we’re going to get to the bottom of it.”

He later told USA Today that he believed the death was a “plot gone awry.”

Trump has expressed reluctance to punish the Saudis economically, citing the kingdom’s multibillion-dollar purchases of U.S. military equipment and investments in U.S. companies.

Prince Mohammed met in Riyadh with U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and discussed “the importance of the Saudi-U.S. strategic partnership,” Saudi state media said. Mnuchin’s spokesman said on Twitter the two discussed the Khashoggi investigation as well as Iran sanctions and Saudi economic issues.

Mnuchin cancelled his speaking engagement at a high-profile Saudi investment conference on Tuesday, as did two dozen other top speakers.

Hundreds of bankers and company executives were still expected to attend the Future Investment Initiative, which aims to help the country curb its economic dependence on oil exports. But Khashoggi’s killing has tarnished an event that last year attracted global business elites and won the moniker “Davos in the Desert.”

Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist and critic of Prince Mohammed who lived in the United States, disappeared after he entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2 to obtain documents for his upcoming marriage.

Saudi Arabia initially denied knowledge of his fate before saying he had been killed in a fight in the consulate, an explanation that drew scepticism from several Western governments.

Following the global outrage prompted by the journalist’s disappearance, Trump’s comments have varied from playing down Riyadh’s role to warning of possible economic sanctions. He has repeatedly highlighted the kingdom’s importance as a U.S. ally and said Prince Mohammed was a strong and passionate leader.

For Saudi Arabia’s allies, the question will be whether they believe that Prince Mohammed, who has painted himself as a reformer, has any culpability. King Salman, 82, has handed the day-to-day running of Saudi Arabia to the 33-year-old prince.

A Saudi flag flutters atop Saudi Arabia's consulate in Istanbul, Turkey October 22, 2018. REUTERS/Murad Sezer

‘WORLD IS WATCHING’

Turkish officials suspect Khashoggi was killed and dismembered inside the consulate by Saudi agents. Turkish sources say authorities have an audio recording purportedly documenting the killing of the 59-year-old.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan has said he will release information about the investigation in a speech on Tuesday.

Earlier on Monday, Trump’s son-in-law, White House adviser Jared Kushner, said in an interview on CNN that he had urged the crown prince to be transparent about Khashoggi and told him “the world is watching” Riyadh’s account of the journalist’s disappearance.

Kushner has cultivated a personal relationship with Prince Mohammed and urged Trump to act with caution to avoid upsetting a critical strategic and economic relationship, a senior administration official said.

Several countries, including Germany, Britain, France and Turkey, have pressed Saudi Arabia to provide all the facts. Chancellor Angela Merkel said Berlin would not export arms to the kingdom while uncertainty over Khashoggi’s fate persisted.

Omer Celik, the spokesman for Erdogan’s AK Party, said that the truth of the case would eventually come out.

“We are facing a situation that has been monstrously planned and later tried to be covered up,” he told reporters. “It is a complicated murder.”

SHIFTING STORIES

On Sunday, Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister, Adel al-Jubeir, said Khashoggi had died in a rogue operation. But some of his comments did not match previous statements from Riyadh, marking yet another shift in the official story.

Jubeir said the Saudis did not know how Khashoggi had died. That contradicted the public prosecutor’s statement a day earlier that Khashoggi died after a fistfight with people who met him inside the consulate. It also contradicted two Saudi officials’ comments to Reuters that it was a chokehold that killed him.

A Saudi official has said that a member of the team dressed in Khashoggi’s clothes to make it appear as if he had left the consulate. Support for that strand of the account appeared to come from footage aired by CNN showing a man dressed as Khashoggi walking around Istanbul. CNN described the images as law enforcement surveillance footage.

On Saturday, Saudi state media said King Salman had fired five officials over the killing carried out by a 15-man hit team, including Saud al-Qahtani, a top aide who ran social media for Prince Mohammed. According to two intelligence sources, Qahtani ran Khashoggi’s killing by giving orders over Skype.

Slideshow (2 Images)

In Moscow, U.S. national security adviser John Bolton said talks were continuing with the Saudis about the incident.

“We want to get the truth, and not just talk. First of all, we need to know why he died. Who killed him? We want to get the full lowdown,” Russian radio station Ekho Moskvy quoted Bolton as saying during a visit to Moscow.

Additional reporting by Mark Hosenball, Doina Chiacu, and Susan Heavey in Washington; Tuvan Gumrukcu in Ankara and Daren Butler in Istanbul; Maxim Rodionov in Moscow; and Maher Chmaytelli in Dubai; Editing by Alistair Bell, Jonathan Oatis and Rosalba O'Brien

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