WASHINGTON — US President Donald Trump on Monday characterized the death of Saudi writer Jamal Khashoggi as a “plot gone awry” and said he didn’t think the writer was deliberately lured into the consulate to be killed.
Trump spoke Sunday with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is the son of Saudi King Salman.
“He says he is not involved nor is the king,” Trump told USA Today in an interview aboard Air Force One Monday en route to a political rally in Texas.
The newspaper said Trump declined to say whether he believed the crown prince’s denials. If their involvement was proven, Trump said: “I would be very upset about it. We’ll have to see.”
Earlier Trump said he’s not satisfied with the explanations he’s heard about the death of Khashoggi and is awaiting reports from US personnel returning from the region.
Khashoggi, who lived in the United States and wrote critically about the Saudi royal family, died earlier this month at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. Saudi Arabia said he was killed in a fistfight, but Turkish officials said the 59-year-old Washington Post columnist was attacked and killed by a 15-man Saudi team.
Asked if he believed Saudi Arabia’s explanation, Trump said, “I am not satisfied with what I’ve heard.”
“We’re going to get to the bottom of it. We have people over in Saudi Arabia now. We have top intelligence people in Turkey. They’re coming back either tonight or tomorrow,” Trump told reporters on the South Lawn of the White House before leaving for a political rally in Texas.
“We’re going to know a lot over the next two days about the Saudi situation,” said Trump. “It’s a very sad thing.”
When he was asked late last week whether he thought Saudi Arabia’s claim that Khashoggi died in a fistfight was credible, the president answered: “I do. I do.”
That statement rankled members of Congress and former government officials who have accused Riyadh of trying to cover up the truth behind Khashoggi’s death or hide any evidence that the kingdom, particularly the crown prince, authorized it.
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky, who has been trying to coax Trump into ending arms sales to Saudi Arabia, said Monday that it’s “laughable” to believe the crown prince was not involved in Khashoggi’s death.
Trump said any US response should not involve scrapping billions of dollars in arms sales, which would hurt US defense industries and eliminate US jobs. “I don’t want to lose all of that investment that’s being made in our country,” he said.
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Trump will continue to demand answers. “He’ll make a determination on what he wants to do once he feels like he has all of the information that he needs,” she said.
Whatever the US response, US ties with its Gulf ally have hit rough waters. The Khashoggi affair also has threatened to upend the relationship of Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner with the crown prince.
The two men — both in their 30s, both trusted aides of older, familial leaders — struck a bond last spring and consulted with one another frequently in private calls in the months that followed. The crown prince, who is known in diplomatic circles as “MBS,” has drawn some praise in the West for his moves to modernize the kingdom and criticism for his government’s arrests of rivals and critics.
Trump now plays down the relationship, saying the crown prince and Kushner are “just two young guys.” But their back-channel relationship unnerved many in the Trump administration and Washington foreign policy establishment who feared that the White House was betting too big on the crown prince.
Kushner on Monday fended off criticism that the Trump administration was giving Saudi Arabia cover. He said administration officials have their “eyes wide open.”
“We’re getting facts in from multiple places and once those facts come in, the secretary of state will work with our national security team to help us determine what we want to believe, what we think is credible and what we think is not credible,” Kushner told CNN.
Even Trump, however, admits that Kushner’s work on trying to craft peace between Israel and the Palestinians has been set back by Khashoggi’s death. “There are a lot of setbacks. This is a setback for that,” Trump told The Washington Post in a weekend phone interview.
Bruce Riedel, a former Middle East specialist for the CIA and National Security Council, said the Trump administration “desperately wants the Istanbul affair to go away and the MBS-Jared bromance obscured.”
An administration official who regularly deals with Kushner pushed back against claims that Kushner and the crown prince are joined at the hip. The official was not authorized to discuss the relationship and spoke only on condition of anonymity.
The official said the two had spoken since the crisis erupted and said Kushner’s comment that he had told the crown prince to be “transparent” is an accurate reflection of the conversation, which took place before the Saudis’ most recent explanation for Khashoggi’s death.
The official said Kushner — like other members of the administration, including Trump — believes Saudi Arabia should suffer some sort of consequence, but said Kushner also believes the US-Saudi relationship “shouldn’t be blown up” because of the Khashoggi matter.
Gerald Feierstein, a former ambassador to Yemen and a top-ranking US diplomat for Middle East policy for three years, said keeping the back channel between Kushner and the crown prince now might “prove to be unsustainable.” Feierstein, now with the Middle East Institute, said he thinks that US relations with Saudi Arabia should be in the hands of professional diplomats, not the president’s adviser.