ANKARA/WASHINGTON – U.S. President Donald Trump said on Monday “rogue killers” may have been behind the disappearance of prominent Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi and dispatched Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to meet King Salman over the case.
Khashoggi, a U.S. resident, Washington Post columnist and leading critic of the powerful Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, vanished after entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul two weeks ago to get marriage documents. Turkish officials say they believe he was murdered there and his body removed, in a case that has provoked an international outcry.
Turkish authorities have an audio recording indicating that Khashoggi was killed in the consulate, a Turkish official and a security source told Reuters, and have shared evidence with countries including Saudi Arabia and the United States. They provided no further details.
Saudi Arabia has strongly denied killing Khashoggi and has denounced such assertions as “lies,” saying he left the building shortly after entering.
“The king firmly denied any knowledge of it,” Trump told reporters after speaking with King Salman. “He didn’t really know, maybe — I don’t want to get into his mind but it sounded to me — maybe these could have been rogue killers. Who knows?”
State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said Trump was sending Pompeo to Riyadh because “determining what happened to Jamal Khashoggi is something of great importance to the president.
Turkish police investigators entered the Istanbul consulate late on Monday. A Turkish diplomatic source had earlier said a joint Turkish-Saudi team would search the building — the last place Khashoggi was seen before he vanished on Oct. 2.
“It has been 13 days since the event, so surely proving some of the evidence might be difficult, but we believe we will obtain evidence,” the Turkish official said.
A Saudi official, not authorized to speak publicly, told Reuters that the king had ordered an internal investigation based on information from the joint team in Istanbul.
Asked when the public prosecutor could make an announcement, the official said: “He was instructed to work quickly.”
King Salman and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan spoke by telephone on Sunday evening and stressed the importance of the two countries creating a joint group as part of the probe.
Trump has threatened “severe punishment” if it turns out Khashoggi was killed in the consulate, although he has ruled out canceling arms deals worth tens of billions of dollars with Saudi Arabia. European allies have urged “a credible investigation” and accountability for those responsible.
Britain expects Riyadh to provide “a complete and detailed response” to questions over Khashoggi’s disappearance, Prime Minister Theresa May’s spokesman said on Monday.
Saudi Arabia has responded to Western statements by saying it would retaliate against any pressure or economic sanctions “with greater action,” and Arab allies rallied to support it, setting up a potential showdown between the world’s top oil exporter and its main Western allies.
The Saudi riyal fell to its lowest in two years and its international bond prices slipped over fears that foreign investment could shrink amid international pressure.
The Saudi stock market had tumbled 7.2 percent over the previous two trading days but rebounded 2 percent on Monday.
Foreign capital is key to Saudi plans for economic diversification and job creation.
Concern over Khashoggi’s disappearance has seen media organizations and a growing number of guests pull out of a “Davos in the Desert” investment conference set for Oct. 23-25, which has become the biggest show for investors to promote Prince Mohammed’s reform vision.
A source familiar with the matter said Blackstone CEO Stephen Schwarzman and BlackRock Chief Executive Larry Fink were pulling out of the summit. Both companies declined comment. CNBC reported that Mastercard CEO Ajay Banga would not attend either.
Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF), which hosts the conference, has tentatively committed $20 billion to an infrastructure investment planned with Blackstone Group. Prince Mohammed told Reuters last year that Blackstone and BlackRock Inc were planning to open offices in the kingdom.
The organizer insisted the conference would go ahead, saying in an emailed statement on Monday that more than 150 speakers were confirmed from over 140 organizations.
Saudi Arabia’s Arab allies have rushed to its support.
Bahrain called for a boycott of Uber, in which PIF has invested $3.5 billion, after its chief executive officer said he would not attend the conference.
Similar campaigns trended on social media in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. UAE businessman Khalaf Ahmad Al-Habtoor urged a boycott of Virgin, which has suspended discussions with PIF over a planned $1 billion investment.
Khashoggi, a familiar face on Arab talk shows, moved to the United States last year fearing retribution for his criticism of Prince Mohammed, who has cracked down on dissent with arrests.
The former newspaper editor once interviewed Osama bin Laden and later became a consummate insider, advising former Saudi intelligence chief Prince Turki al-Faisal when he served as ambassador in London and Washington.
A pro-government Turkish daily published preliminary evidence last week from investigators who it said had identified a 15-member Saudi intelligence team that arrived in Istanbul on diplomatic passports hours before Khashoggi disappeared.
The Saudi Consulate referred Reuters to authorities in Riyadh, who did not respond to questions about the 15 Saudis.
Asked if he had reviewed the purported recording of Khashoggi’s killing, Trump told reporters on Saturday: “I have not. … We’ve all heard a lot about the audio. Nobody’s seen it yet, so we do want to see it … we’re going to be seeing it very soon.”