US President Donald Trump strongly criticized Saudi Arabia's explanation for the death of journalist Jamal Khashoggi late Saturday, saying that "obviously there's been deception, and there's been lies."
At the same time, Trump defended the oil-rich monarchy as an "incredible ally" and kept open the possibility that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman did not order Saudi agents to kill Khashoggi.
"Nobody has told me he's responsible. Nobody has told me he's not responsible. We haven't reached that point . . . I would love if he wasn't responsible," Trump said in a phone interview with The Washington Post.
The kingdom's claim that Khashoggi was killed after a fistfight escalated inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul was met with a torrent of international skepticism Saturday over how a team of Saudi agents could fly to Istanbul to meet Khashoggi and eventually kill him without the knowledge or consent of the crown prince, the de facto leader.
Trump had told reporters Friday that the Saudi explanation was credible, but US officials said he has privately grimaced that his son-in-law Jared Kushner's close relationship with the crown prince has become a liability and left the White House with no good options.
In the interview, Trump defended Kushner as doing a "very good job" but acknowledged that he and the crown prince, both in their 30s, are relatively young for the amount of power they wield.
"They're two young guys. Jared doesn't know him well or anything. They are just two young people. They are the same age. They like each other I believe," Trump said.
The Trump administration made its relationship with Mohammed a linchpin of its Middle East policy, relying on him to help strike a peace deal between the Palestinians and Israelis and unite the Arab world against Iran. Now, the Saudi government's handling of the killing of a Washington Post contributing columnist has tarnished Mohammed's image as the Trump administration is questioning the value of its high-profile partnership with him.
Trump reiterated that the United States should not let the incident interrupt U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia, citing a $110 billion arms sale with Riyadh he announced last year that analysts have said is inflated.
"It's the largest order in history," Trump said. "To give that up would hurt us far more than it hurts them. Then all they'll do is go to Russia or go to China. All that's doing is hurting us."
"With that being said, something will take place," Trump added.
US officials must now account for the glaring inconsistencies between the accounts of Turkish investigators and that of the Saudi government released Saturday.
A key piece of evidence is the audio recording that led Turkish investigators to conclude days ago that Khashoggi was killed and dismembered by a Saudi team dispatched to Istanbul. Trump on Saturday denied that any US officials have heard audio, seen video or read any transcripts from the Turks.
But CIA officials have listened to an audio recording that Turkish officials say proves the journalist was killed and dismembered by the Saudi team, according to people familiar with the matter. If verified, the recording would make it difficult for the United States to accept the Saudi version that Khashoggi's death was effectively an accident. Officials agreed to speak for this article on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive topic.
This tension has put a particularly bright spotlight on Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, whom Trump sent to Ankara and Riyadh this past week to manage the ballooning controversy. Pompeo and State Department officials have gone out of their way to deny that the top diplomat listened to audio provided by the Turks. "I've heard no tape, I've seen no transcript," Pompeo told reporters late this past week.
By not reviewing those materials, the top U.S. diplomat is not in an obvious position to refute or confirm the Saudi account, said diplomats familiar with the situation.
"If Secretary Pompeo was offered to listen to the audio recording, he was smart to say no," said Soner Cagaptay, a Turkey scholar at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "You can't unlisten to it, and once you listen to it, you can't say certain things."
One diplomat who deals with the issue said that if Pompeo had heard the audio, it would be a "total game changer" and require a much more forceful U.S. response.
Trump showed an interest in obtaining the recordings but said they have been out of reach so far. "I've heard all about the videos or the tapes. Nobody would get it faster than me. Nobody has been able to show it to me," he said.
In its announcement Saturday, the Saudi government said it fired five top officials and arrested 18 other Saudis as a result of the initial investigation. The preliminary probe conducted by the prosecutor found that Khashoggi, a critic of the Saudi government, was strangled after a fistfight with a group of Saudi "suspects."
At least 12 members of the Saudi team are connected to Saudi security services, and several have links to Mohammed, according to a review of passport records, social media, local media reports and other material.
On Saturday, King Salman increased his support for the crown prince, putting him in charge of the official review of the Saudi intelligence apparatus.
The decision raised questions about the quality of Saudi Arabia's review and investigation of its actions, which Pompeo touted as a key achievement of his trip.
"We talked about the importance of the investigation, completing it in a timely fashion, and making sure that it was sufficiently transparent that we could evaluate the work that had been done to get to the bottom of it," Pompeo told reporters on the tarmac in Riyadh before leaving the country. "So that was the purpose of the visit. In that sense it was incredibly successful."
The State Department declined to comment on Pompeo's satisfaction with Riyadh's actions on Saturday.
One U.S. official expressed dismay that Kushner's close relationship with the crown prince was not enough to provide guardrails against the killing and now leaves the administration vulnerable to criticism that the United States is beholden to the Saudis.
The official said Trump is annoyed by a sense that he was blindsided and by what he sees as Kushner's misjudgment. Kushner has in recent days been sidelined from the Khashoggi case, which many in the administration see as beneficial.
Trump dismissed widespread rumors that the king is in poor health.
"I've read that [he's incapacitated]. I don't feel that way at all," he said. "Just the opposite of incapacitated - I spoke to him two days ago, he's very sharp, he's a wise man, he's a wise person."
"That is started by jealous people," he added.
Another official said the president is particularly sensitive about the unpleasant optics of the situation given the proximity of the midterm elections, but it remains unclear whether he will take any action.
Trump suggested on Saturday that the crown prince was a stabilizing force in Saudi Arabia, despite the view of critics who note his government's slaughter of civilians in Yemen, crackdown on dissent and jailing of political opponents.
"He's a strong person. He has very good control," Trump said. "He's seen as a person who can keep things under check, I mean that in a positive way."
In deciding how to deal with the Saudi matter, Trump has faced conflicting advice from his advisers. His hawkish national security adviser, John Bolton, has emphasized his view that the US-Saudi relationship is important to containing Iran, said advisers. Kushner has also stressed the importance of keeping a strong rapport with the Saudis.
Republican Lindsey Graham, however, has told Trump that if he doesn't punish the Saudis, they won't respect him.
A key consideration in the administration's mind, according to Republican Bob Corker, is the belief that the crown prince can salvage Kushner's stalled peace plan between Israelis and Palestinians. "A lot of the Middle East peace plan is based upon their support. They feel like they have a lot of equity there," Corker said.
Trump allies acknowledged that the White House's equivocations would probably result in growing calls from Congress for a more credible accounting of events from Saudi Arabia, but they doubted it would damage the president politically.
"I don't think it hurts politically as much as some media are saying," said Marc Short, Trump's former legislative affairs director. But he noted that "if the administration is reluctant to come out and quickly condemn, you create a vacuum where Congress will want to fill that vacuum."