President Donald Trump said Thursday the United States is being “very tough” as it looks into a Saudi writer missing and feared murdered in Istanbul, adding “we have investigators over there and we’re working with Turkey” and with Saudi Arabia.
Trump spoke on “Fox & Friends” about Jamal Khashoggi, 59, a government critic who disappeared a week ago after entering a Saudi consulate in Turkey. The wealthy former government insider wrote columns for The Washington Post, including some critical of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. He’d been living in the United States in self-imposed exile.
Turkish officials say they fear Saudi Arabia killed and dismembered Khashoggi but offered no evidence. Saudi royal guards, intelligence officers, soldiers and an autopsy expert were part of a 15-member team from the kingdom that targeted Khashoggi, Turkish media reported Thursday.
“We want to find out what happened,” Trump said. “He went in, and it doesn’t look like he came out. It certainly doesn’t look like he’s around.”
The president did not provide details on a U.S. investigation. Asked about a Washington Post report that U.S. intelligence intercepts outlined a Saudi plan to detain Khashoggi, Trump said, “It would be a very sad thing and we will probably know in the very short future.”
The Post, citing anonymous U.S. officials familiar with the intelligence, said Prince Mohammed ordered an operation to lure Khashoggi from his home in Virginia to Saudi Arabia and then detain him.
Saudi Arabia has called the allegation it abducted or harmed Khashoggi “baseless.” It has offered no evidence to support its claim the writer simply walked out of its consulate and vanished despite his fiancée waiting outside for him.
Decades of close U.S.-Saudi relations, which have only intensified under Trump, appeared in jeopardy by the suggestion of a carefully plotted murder of a government critic. Trump on Thursday described the relationship as “excellent.”
Pressure, meanwhile, mounted in Congress for the Trump administration to address the writer’s disappearance.
More than 20 Republican and Democratic senators instructed Trump to order an investigation under legislation that authorizes imposition of sanctions for perpetrators of extrajudicial killings, torture or other gross human rights violations.
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., a longtime critic of the Saudi government, has said he’ll try to force a vote in the Senate blocking U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia. Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., said it would be time for the U.S. to rethink its relationship with Saudi Arabia if it turned out Khashoggi was lured to his death by the Saudis.
Trump expressed reservations about withholding arms sales to Saudi Arabia. Speaking with “Fox News @ Night” Wednesday night, Trump warned such a move “would be hurting us.”
“We have jobs, we have a lot of things happening in this country,” Trump said. “We have a country that’s doing probably better economically than it’s ever done before.”
He continued: “Part of that is what we’re doing with our defense systems and everybody’s wanting them. And frankly I think that that would be a very, very tough pill to swallow for our country. I mean, you’re affecting us and, you know, they’re always quick to jump that way.”
Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, has been the Trump administration’s point person on Saudi Arabia. Trump visited Saudi Arabia on his first international trip as president and announced $110 billion in proposed arms sales.
The administration also relies on Saudi support for its Middle East agenda to counter Iranian influence, fight extremism and support an expected peace plan between Israel and the Palestinians.