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Trump defends Saudis as furore grows over missing journalist

17 Oct,2018

The New York Times News :

 

The Trump administration pushed back on Tuesday against rising condemnation of Saudi Arabia and showed support for its crown prince, who has been linked to the disappearance and possible killing of a leading dissident journalist inside a Saudi consulate in Turkey.

In his strongest language to date over the missing journalist, President Donald Trump said in an interview with The Associated Press: Here we go again with you’re guilty until proven innocent.

Hours earlier, Trump’s top diplomat, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, arrived in Riyadh, the Saudi capital, smiling and shaking hands with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Pompeo issued a statement saying Saudi leaders had promised a thorough, transparent, and timely investigation into what had befallen the journalist, Jamal Khashoggi, after he entered the consulate on Oct 2. Trump and Pompeo also said the Saudi leaders had repeated their emphatic denials of any involvement in KhashoggiÕs disappearance.

After days of leaks by Turkish officials that accused Saudi Arabia of sending a hit squad to kill Khashoggi and dismember him with a bone saw, this was the latest indication that the Trump administration would help its top Arab ally defuse an international crisis.

The administration’s moves have come as criticism of the crown prince has intensified — including by Republican members of Congress, business leaders and human rights officials — over Khashoggi’s disappearance and apparent murder.

Saudi Arabia also took steps on Tuesday to please the White House. Just as Pompeo met with Saudi leaders, a long-promised Saudi pledge of $100 million to help US aid efforts in Syrian areas liberated from the Islamic State was deposited in State Department accounts.

Neither Trump or Pompeo provided any new insights into what had happened to Khashoggi. But with his comment about presumed guilt, Trump drew a parallel to the sexual assault accusations made against his newest Supreme Court justice, Brett Kavanaugh.

Trump’s reference to the bitter confirmation battle over Kavanaugh was telling. In that case, he initially took a restrained tone, observing that the judge’s accuser, Christine Blasey Ford, appeared credible in her testimony before the Senate about an alleged sexual assault.

But over time, as the furore threatened to irreparably tarnish his nominee, Trump discarded restraint. He complained that Kavanaugh had been unfairly accused, raised questions about Blasey’s account, and even mocked her at a rally.

In the case of Khashoggi, Trump first expressed concern about the allegations and warned of severe consequences if the Saudi government were found responsible. But after days of unconvincing denials from the Saudis and growing evidence that the crown prince or his family may have been involved, Trump is shifting to a tone of defiance.

There are signs that Trump’s defence of Kavanaugh appealed to his political base, and may even have boosted the prospects of Republicans in the midterm elections. But a Saudi prince is different than a Supreme Court nominee, and unlike in Kavanaugh’s case, there could yet be conclusive evidence of a heinous crime.

Khashoggi was last seen entering Saudi Arabia’s consulate in Istanbul seeking marriage documents. Speaking anonymously, Turkish officials say they have evidence he was killed within two hours of entering the consulate by a team of Saudi agents.

Answers will be forthcoming shortly, Trump said on Twitter, relaying that he had spoken with the crown prince on a phone call that also included Pompeo.

The prince, Trump said, totally denied any knowledge of what took place in their Turkish consulate.Ó

The prince has already started, and will rapidly expand, a full and complete investigation into this matter, the president said.

Khashoggi, who wrote columns for The Washington Post, lived in the United States, and his 60th birthday was on Saturday.

Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, told reporters in Ankara on Tuesday that investigators who searched the consulate on Monday and Tuesday were looking into toxic materials, and those materials being removed by painting them over. Turkish news outlets, citing unnamed sources, have reported that Khashoggi was drugged, and that parts of the consulate and the nearby consul’s residence were repainted after the journalist’s disappearance.

Later in the day, the Saudi consul, Mohammed al-Otaibi, left the country, the Turkish Foreign Ministry said. Pompeo is expected to travel to Ankara, the Turkish capital, on Wednesday.

Trump has vowed severe punishment if a Saudi hand is confirmed in KhashoggiÕs killing, but has said he does not want the case to affect arms sales that create American jobs.

But on Monday, a person familiar with Saudi plans said the kingdom was likely to say that the killing was an accident committed by rogue Saudi agents, not an assassination ordered from Riyadh. The Saudi version of the story will probably be that officials intended to interrogate and abduct Khashoggi, spiriting him back to Saudi Arabia, but that they botched the job, killing him instead, the person said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because Saudi officials had yet to talk publicly about their plans.

The reported killing has created a bipartisan uproar in Congress, shaking the foundations of the close US-Saudi relationship with calls for suspension of military sales punctuated by particularly strong rebukes of the crown prince, who basically rules the kingdom for his father, King Salman.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-SC, formerly a strong advocate of Saudi Arabia, has been among the most outspoken critics of the crown prince over the Khashoggi mystery. He had this guy murdered in the consulate in Turkey, Graham said Tuesday on the Fox and Friends news program. Expect me to ignore it? I feel used and abused.

Graham said I’m not going back to Saudi Arabia as long as this guy’s in charge, and suggested the king remove the prince from power. This guy is a wrecking ball, the senator said.

For two weeks, Saudi leaders, including both the king and the crown prince, have denied that their country had anything to do with Khashoggi’s disappearance and have said that they did not know where he was. Saudi officials have insisted that he left the consulate, safe and free, the same day he entered it, although they have offered no supporting evidence.

But by Monday night, it appeared that the Trump administration and Turkey’s leaders were leaving room for a new version of events: Trump said after speaking with King Salman that perhaps Òrogue killers had been involved.

At their meeting on Tuesday, Pompeo thanked the king for his commitment to supporting a thorough, transparent and timely investigation of Jamal Khashoggi’s disappearance, said Heather Nauert, a State Department spokeswoman.

Pompeo was greeted on arrival by Prince Khalid bin Salman, a son of the king and younger brother of the crown prince. Khalid bin Salman had been serving as the Saudi ambassador to Washington, but returned to Riyadh last week, and US officials said he was unlikely to return.

After seeing the king, Pompeo met with Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir, and later with Mohammed bin Salman.

We are strong and old allies, the crown prince said in English, in brief remarks as the meeting began. ÒWe face our challenges together.

The administration has refused calls to back down from lucrative weapon sales to Saudi Arabia. And Steven Mnuchin, the Treasury secretary, still plans to attend a Saudi investment forum next week, even as several US businesses and lobbyists have distanced themselves from the country.

On Tuesday morning, Trump wrote on Twitter, For the record, I have no financial interests in Saudi Arabia. It was not clear what prompted that statement, but several news organisations have noted recently that the president has boasted about real estate deals with wealthy Saudis and once sold his yacht to a Saudi prince — ties that had been reported before, but that have drawn new attention because of the Khashoggi case.

As international outrage mounts over the disappearance, the United Nations human rights chief, Michelle Bachelet, said on Tuesday that Saudi authorities should reveal all they know.

The Washington Post’s publisher and chief executive, Fred Ryan, also spoke out while Pompeo was visiting with the Saudis.

The Saudi government can no longer remain silent, and it is essential that our own government and others push harder for the truth, Ryan said on Twitter.

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