Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. (Source: Jamal Khashoggi/Twitter)

Trump Says Khashoggi Likely Dead, Warns of ‘Severe’ Consequences

(Bloomberg) -- President Donald Trump said it “certainly looks” like missing journalist Jamal Khashoggi is dead and warned of “very severe” consequences for the killing.

Trump told reporters Thursday that his administration is “waiting for the results of about three different investigations” as it decides how to respond amid reports that the U.S.-based journalist was ambushed inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, then tortured, killed and dismembered.

“I mean, it’s bad, bad stuff,” Trump said. “But we’ll see what happens."

The comments were the latest sign the administration is under increasing pressure to act more than two weeks after Khashoggi, a critic of the Saudi government, went missing. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin earlier in the day withdrew from an investment conference in Riyadh after Secretary of State Michael Pompeo briefed him and Trump following a hastily planned trip to Saudi Arabia and Turkey on Monday.

Pompeo on Thursday denied an ABC News report that he heard audio of the alleged murder and was given a transcript of the recording.

Trump Says Khashoggi Likely Dead, Warns of ‘Severe’ Consequences

“I’ve heard no tape, I’ve seen no transcript,” he told reporters on a plane en route to Mexico. Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said it would be “out of the question" for Turkey to share a voice recording with Pompeo or other U.S. officials.

Following a day of meetings on Tuesday with King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Pompeo said the Saudi leaders understood the importance of producing a quick but thorough report on Khashoggi’s fate. On Thursday, he said Saudi officials needed a few more days to conclude their work.

The Trump administration has given the Saudis two days to provide an explanation of what happened to Khashoggi, who will be held accountable and what consequences they will face, said a U.S. official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Saudi rulers are considering blaming a top intelligence official close to Prince Mohammed for the apparent killing, the New York Times reported, citing three unidentified people with knowledge of Saudi plans.

“We made clear to them that we take this matter with respect to Mr. Khashoggi very seriously,” Pompeo told reporters at the White House after the meeting. The Saudis agreed, he said, adding that “they also assured me that they will conduct a complete, thorough investigation of all the facts surrounding Mr. Khashoggi and that they will do so in a timely fashion.”

Trump Says Khashoggi Likely Dead, Warns of ‘Severe’ Consequences

The Trump administration also faces growing bipartisan outrage in Congress over Saudi Arabia’s role in Khashoggi’s disappearance.

“Mr. Khashoggi is dead,” Senator John Kennedy, a Louisiana Republican, told reporters at the Capitol, according to Voice of America News and others. “I don’t think the aliens abducted him. I don’t think he fell through a hole in the space-time continuum. I think he’s dead, and I think the Saudis killed him.”

While lawmakers are threatening to sanction the Saudi government, Trump, who has cultivated closer ties to the kingdom, has taken a cautious stance. In his remarks Thursday, Pompeo stressed the long alliance between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia.

“They are an important strategic alliance of the United States and we need to be mindful of that as well,” he said.

Distrust of Saudis

Lawmakers aren’t satisfied. In a tweet shortly after Pompeo’s remarks, Republican Senator Marco Rubio of Florida said: “Must not accept a strategic alliance with #SaudiArabia which requires our silence when they butcher a political critic.” He called for everyone responsible to be held accountable and for the U.S. to “be clear on what is expected moving forward if they want to preserve our alliance.”

The stark differences between Congress and the administration underscore that Saudi Arabia enjoys far greater respect in the Oval Office than in the Capitol. Many lawmakers harbor a distrust of the kingdom dating back to its connection to the Sept. 11 attacks. Its bloody involvement in Yemen’s civil war and interference in Lebanese politics have cost it further U.S. support.

Trump Says Khashoggi Likely Dead, Warns of ‘Severe’ Consequences

The Saudis, Pompeo said, assured him the investigation “will be transparent” and the results made publicly available. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told Pompeo that his government is conducting its own investigation of what happened to Khashoggi after he entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul to retrieve a document for his upcoming wedding.

“We do believe that between these two efforts a complete picture will emerge for what actually transpired here,” Pompeo said.

Khashoggi, who wrote critically about Prince Mohammed, hasn’t been seen since entering the consulate. Turkish officials have said he was murdered and dismembered within the building by Saudi agents who were waiting for him to arrive. Saudi officials have insisted Khashoggi left unharmed, without providing any evidence of the claim.

Defeats in Congress

Should Congress act against Saudi Arabia despite Trump’s reservations, it would mark yet another defeat in Washington for the kingdom. Just two years ago, Congress passed legislation allowing Saudi Arabia to be sued for its involvement in the Sept. 11 attacks. Though the Saudi government wasn’t found to have had a formal role in the attacks, 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi citizens, a fact not forgotten by lawmakers or the American public.

U.S. options include expelling Saudi diplomats, securing a United Nations resolution criticizing the kingdom’s behavior, curtailing arms sales or enacting sanctions on Saudi officials, Kennedy said on Wednesday. Trump opposes canceling what he says is a $110 billion arms deal with the kingdom that would create 500,000 U.S. jobs.

Trump chose Saudi Arabia for his first overseas trip as president and his administration has made Saudi Arabia a linchpin of its Middle East policy, which seeks to isolate Iran financially and diplomatically. The Saudis have been a key partner in that effort, and Trump has defended the kingdom even as it engaged in a crackdown on members of the royal family and pursued the war in Yemen.

Yet Trump may soon face a second overwhelming vote to impose sanctions on a country with which the president has sought to improve relations. Last year, veto-proof majorities in Congress approved sanctions on Russia to punish its 2016 election interference, over Trump’s objections.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.