(Bloomberg) -- President Donald Trump said he’s immediately sending Secretary of State Michael Pompeo to Saudi Arabia to meet with King Salman bin Abdulaziz and suggested that “rogue killers” might be behind the disappearance of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey.
Trump commented on Monday after he said the king, in a 20-minute phone call, offered him a “flat denial” that the Saudi government was behind Khashoggi’s disappearance and possible murder. A Saudi official said the kingdom has begun an investigation ordered by the king and could hold people accountable if evidence warrants it. The probe is separate from a joint investigation being undertaken with Turkish officials.
“His denial to me could not have been stronger,” Trump told reporters, referring to the king. “I don’t want to get into his mind, but it sounded to me like maybe these could have been rogue killers. Who knows? We’re going to try getting to the bottom of it very soon.”
Trump said King Salman added that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman also “had no knowledge” about Khashoggi’s fate. The crown prince said in an interview with Bloomberg News a day after Khashoggi’s disappearance that he believed the journalist had left Saudi Arabia’s consulate in Istanbul alive after entering on Oct. 2.
CNN, citing two people it didn’t identify, said the Saudis are now preparing a report that will say that Khashoggi died as the result of an interrogation that went wrong. The interrogation was intended to lead to the journalist’s abduction from Turkey, according to the report.
The decision to dispatch Pompeo signals how much the crisis over the fate of Khashoggi, a Saudi citizen and U.S. resident who wrote critically of the kingdom’s leaders, is threatening to damage U.S.-Saudi relations. Turkish officials have said they believe he was killed and dismembered inside the consulate.
“Determining what happened to Jamal Khashoggi is something of great importance to the president,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said on Monday as Pompeo prepared to take off from Washington. He was joined on the plane by David Hale, the under secretary for political affairs, and Tim Lenderking, a deputy assistant secretary for Arabian Gulf affairs, among others.
The U.S. administration increasingly regards Saudi Arabia’s denial of any involvement of Khashoggi’s disappearance as untenable, and Trump and his aides are more and more convinced that the Washington Post columnist died after entering the Saudi consulate to pick up a document for his wedding, said three U.S. officials who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the matter.
“All I can do is report what he told me,” Trump told reporters on Monday, adding that he warned the Saudi king that “the world is watching.”
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Trump has built his Middle East policy around his close alliance with Saudi Arabia, the first foreign country he visited after taking office in 2017. Crown Prince Mohammed has twice visited the president in the Oval Office, most recently in March to kick off a glitzy investment tour of the U.S. that included stops on Wall Street and Hollywood. The prince developed a rapport with Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser.
Despite increasing pressure from Congress, Trump said he’s reluctant to cancel multibillion-dollar arms sales to the kingdom out of concern the U.S. ally will turn to Russia or China instead. But a range of other punishments are under discussion within the administration, from downgrading diplomatic relations or sanctioning Saudi officials to following major U.S. companies in withdrawing officials from an investment conference in Riyadh this month.
White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow warned Sunday of “stern action” by Trump if Saudi Arabia is found responsible for Khashoggi’s disappearance. “If the Saudis are involved, if Khashoggi was killed or harmed or whatever bad outcome here, he will take action. That has been his strategy. Believe what he says,” Kudlow said on “Fox News Sunday.”
Saudi Arabia, the world’s biggest oil exporter, said on Sunday it would retaliate against any punitive measures with even “stronger ones,” according to a statement carried by the official Saudi Press Agency. In a reference to the kingdom’s oil wealth, the statement noted how the Saudi economy “has an influential and vital role in the global economy.”
The Saudi ambassador left Washington last week to return to Riyadh, and one U.S. official said he was instructed by Pompeo and National Security Adviser John Bolton to return to the U.S. with answers about Khashoggi’s disappearance.
Trump is under mounting pressure from Congress. Several Republicans have said arms sales should be curtailed, and Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, the Republican chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, said last week that he had warned the Saudis that their relationship with the U.S. risked collapsing.
On Sunday, Florida Senator Marco Rubio, another member of the Foreign Relations panel, said that Trump risked sacrificing the moral high ground with other misbehaving foreign leaders.
“If this is proven to be true, there is going to be a response from Congress. It’s going to be nearly unanimous. It’s going to be swift. And it’s going to go pretty far,” Rubio added.
(Updates to add CNN report on Khashoggi’s death in fifth paragraph.)
--With assistance from Vivian Nereim, Nick Wadhams and Jennifer Jacobs.
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