WASHINGTON (AP) — US President Donald Trump on Tuesday criticized rapidly mounting global condemnation of Saudi Arabia over the mystery of missing journalist Jamal Khashoggi, warning of a rush to judgment and echoing the Saudis’ request for patience.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Trump compared the case of Khashoggi, who Turkish officials have said was murdered in the Saudis’ Istanbul consulate, to the allegations of sexual assault leveled against Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh during his confirmation hearing.
“I think we have to find out what happened first,” Trump said. “Here we go again with, you know, you’re guilty until proven innocent. I don’t like that. We just went through that with Justice Kavanaugh and he was innocent all the way as far as I’m concerned.”
The Oval Office interview came not long after Trump spoke Tuesday with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
He spoke by phone a day earlier with King Salman, and he said both deny any knowledge of what happened to Khashoggi.
Trump’s remarks were his most robust defense yet of the Saudis, a US ally he has made central to his Mideast agenda. They put the president at odds with other key allies and with some leaders in his Republican Party who have condemned the Saudi leadership for what they say is an obvious role in the case. Trump appeared willing to resist the pressure to follow suit, accepting Saudi denials and their pledge to investigate.
Khashoggi, a Saudi citizen but resident of the United States, has been a contributor to The Washington Post and a critic of Saudi leaders, especially Crown Prince Mohammed.
In Turkey earlier Tuesday, a high-level Turkish official told the Associated Press that police investigators searching the Saudi Consulate had found evidence that Khashoggi was killed there.
The president said that his own comment Monday about possible “rogue killers” behind Khashoggi’s disappearance was informed by his “feeling” from his conversation with Salman, and that the King did not use the term.
Also Tuesday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met with the king and crown prince in Riyadh and said the Saudis had already started a “serious and credible investigation” and seemed to suggest it could lead to people within the kingdom. The secretary of state noted that the Saudi leaders, while denying knowledge of anything that occurred inside the consulate, had committed to accountability “including for Saudi Arabia’s senior leaders or senior officials.”
Pompeo was heading next to Turkey, where officials have accused the Saudis of using a 15-member team to kill Khashoggi inside the consulate.
Trump said he hopes the Saudis’ own investigation of Khashoggi’s disappearance will be concluded in “less than a week.”
In the meantime, international leaders and business executives are severing or rethinking ties to the Saudi government after Khashoggi’s high-profile disappearance. Trump has resisted any action, pointing to huge U.S. weapons deals pending with Saudi Arabia and saying that sanctions could end up hurting the American economy.
He said it was too early to say whether he endorsed other countries’ actions. “I have to find out what happened,” he said. But his complaint about “guilty until proven innocent” and comparison to the Kavanaugh situation suggested he was giving the Saudis more leeway than other allies.
Khashoggi went to the consulate on Oct. 2 to get documents for his upcoming marriage to a Turkish woman while his fiancee waited outside. She and Turkish authorities say he never emerged and he has not been heard from since.
Khashoggi, 59, had been living in the US for a year in self-imposed exile and writing columns for the opinion section of The Washington Post.
Trump said Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin’s trip to attend a Saudi investment conference is still on but could be canceled by Friday depending on what the investigation finds.
“I think we’ll also be guided by what other countries are doing,” he said.