WASHINGTON/ISTANBUL – White House adviser Jared Kushner said on Monday he had urged Saudi Arabia’s crown prince to be transparent about the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, and told him “the world is watching” Riyadh’s account of the journalist’s disappearance.
Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist and critic of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the kingdom’s de facto ruler, disappeared three weeks ago after he entered the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul to obtain documents for his upcoming marriage.
Riyadh initially denied knowledge of his fate before saying he was killed in a fight in the consulate, a reaction greeted sceptically by several Western governments, straining relations with the world’s biggest oil exporter.
But as incredulity deepened over Saudi Arabia’s account, comments from President Donald Trump have varied. He has appeared at times to play down Riyadh’s role in the incident, but also warned of potential economic sanctions. He has repeatedly highlighted the kingdom’s importance as an ally.
Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, 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.
On Monday, Kushner said he had told the crown prince: “Just to be transparent, to be fully transparent. The world is watching. This is a very, very serious accusation and a very serious situation.”
Asked how the prince responded, Kushner, speaking on CNN, said: “We’ll see.”
Kushner said the United States was in a “fact-finding phase” on the case and had its “eyes wide open.” He did not say when or by what means he had communicated with Prince Mohammed.
Khashoggi went missing on Oct. 2 when he entered the consulate in Istanbul. After weeks of denying knowledge of his fate, Saudi officials said the journalist was killed in a “fist fight.”
On Sunday, Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister, Adel al-Jubeir, said Khashoggi had died in a rogue operation. But some of his comments appeared to contradict previous statements from Riyadh, marking yet another shift in the official story.
Several countries, including Germany, Britain, France and Turkey, have pressed Riyadh to provide all the facts, and Chancellor Angela Merkel said Berlin would not export arms to Saudi Arabia while uncertainty over Khashoggi’s fate persisted.
Turkish officials suspect Khashoggi was killed inside the consulate by Saudi agents and his body cut up. Turkish sources say authorities have an audio recording purportedly documenting the murder of the 59-year-old.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said he will release information about the investigation in a speech on Tuesday.
Ahead of Erdogan’s speech, the spokesman for his AK Party warned on that truth of the case would be eventually revealed.
“We are being careful so nobody tries to cover the issue up. The truth will come out,” Omer Celik told reporters.
“We are facing a situation that has been monstrously planned and later tried to be covered up. It is a complicated murder.”
A car belonging to the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul was found in the Sultangazi district of the city, broadcaster NTV and other local media said on Monday, adding that police would search the vehicle.
For Saudi Arabia’s allies, the question will be whether they believe that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who has painted himself as a reformer, has any culpability. King Salman, 82, has handed the day-to-day running of Saudi Arabia to him.
Further complicating the narrative, the explanation of Jubeir, the foreign minister, has appeared to depart from previous official statements.
He 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 member of the team dressed in Khashoggi’s clothes to make it appear as if he had left the consulate, a Saudi official has said. 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.
Some top U.S. lawmakers turned their ire on the crown prince and said they believed he ordered the killing. “Do I think he did it? Yes, I think he did it,” Republican Sen. Bob Corker, the influential chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in an interview with CNN.