Amid international outcry and condemnation of Saudi Arabia, sparked by accusations the kingdom’s royal court oversaw the murder of a dissident journalist, President Donald Trump and his administration have resisted cutting ties to a key US defense and trading partner.
US officials have so far declined to endorse a Turkish assessment of Jamal Khashoggi’s death, which includes – according to Turkish claims – audio and video recordings from inside the consulate revealing Khashoggi was killed. The Saudis have issued a broad denial of responsibility, but have offered nothing concrete to prove that Khashoggi walked out of their consulate or that he is still alive.
Even as Trump vowed on Friday to raise the matter with Saudi King Salman and claims that answers will come “sooner than people think,” senior administration officials on Friday described a process expected to take weeks, if not months, to determine what precisely happened to Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, and to develop a US response if it is determined he was killed on orders from the Saudi government.
American officials, including national security adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, made clear this week to their Saudi counterparts they expected answers from the government in Riyadh about the journalist’s disappearance, including during a phone call to the de facto leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
Prince Mohammed’s brother, serving as the Saudi ambassador in Washington, was dispatched back to Riyadh with the expectation he would return to the US with answers. Bolton and Pompeo both made clear they expected a formal explanation for the disappearance, people familiar with the matter said.
How long that takes, however, wasn’t immediately known. Nor was it clear the extent to which the US planned its own probe, despite Trump’s claim on Thursday that investigators were looking into the matter on the ground. Neither the White House nor the FBI would provide clarity on who the investigators were that Trump referenced.
Pressed again for answers on Friday, the President promised the US was working to get to the bottom of the matter, but said “nobody knows quite yet” what happened.
“A lot of people are looking to find out because it is potentially a really, really terrible situation, so we’ll see what happens,” Trump said, mirroring his first comments on the matter earlier this week.
And he downplayed new scrutiny of Saudi Arabia’s human rights record, suggesting other countries have similar shortcomings.
“You take a look at a lot of countries, a lot of countries’ records have been overlooked,” he said as he disembarked Air Force One in Ohio for a campaign rally.
And with public and loud declarations from Trump himself that billions of dollars of arms sales from the US to Saudi Arabia are not going away, officials are still working through what potential punishments may viable options for the US if Saudi officials are found to be responsible.
“We’re going slow,” one White House official said, describing a diplomatic effort that continues placing weight on Saudi Arabia as a key US defense and trading partner. Past administrations, both Republican and Democratic, have cultivated Riyadh as a strategic ally.
It was evident on Friday that relationship would continue. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, traveling in Indonesia for a conference of finance ministers, said on CNBC that he still planned to attend a major conference for investors, organized by the powerful crown prince, that is scheduled to occur mid-month in Riyadh.
Later on Friday, Trump signaled Mnuchin’s attendance wasn’t a sure thing, but noted that “a lot of people are going” to the conference.
“We’ll make that determination very soon,” he said.
And in an interview taped Thursday, national security adviser John Bolton indicated it was too early to pin blame on Saudi Arabia for the death, despite what Turkish officials have been telling news organizations for the past several days.
“We need to find out what the facts are, and we need to get this resolved quickly, because if it is another operation, people need to understand that,” Bolton said on Hugh Hewitt’s radio show. “I think the Saudis themselves are being damaged, because we don’t have the facts out.”
His answer reflected lingering concerns within the administration the veracity of the information coming from Turkey, which has seen its relationship with both Riyadh and Washington worsen in recent months. And it mirrored similar caution in Europe, where governments have fostered equally close relationships with Saudi Arabia.
“I’m waiting for the truth and complete clarity to be established,” French President Emmanuel Macron said in an interview with France 24.
US ties with Turkey have been strained for months. But on Friday, the tensions seemed to ease with the release of an American pastor, Andrew Brunson, who had been imprisoned there for 24 months. US evangelicals, who form a key component of Trump’s political base, had appealed to Trump for help in the case.
It wasn’t clear whether Brunson’s release would prompt the US to side with Turkey in its accusations against Saudi Arabia, officials said, suggesting that an independent assessment of Khashoggi’s disappearance would still be required.
“We’ll be having a report out soon. We’re working with Turkey, we’re working with Saudi Arabia,” Trump told reporters on Thursday in the Oval Office, though later officials downplayed the prospects of a public assessment in the near future.
Over the course of the week, the President has expressed frustration at the situation that has led to new scrutiny of his son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner, who fostered close ties with Prince Mohammed, even as more seasoned Middle East hands questioned the young leader’s motivations.
Pressed on Friday as to whether Kushner had made a mistake in forging such a close relationship with the Saudi crown prince, Trump demurred.
“Well, I don’t know if it’s any closer than other relationships that people have. We have a lot of very close relationships with a lot of countries. But this is a serious problem,” he said.
Trump has asked aides to develop a list of potential punishments, including steps that could affect Saudi royals’ ability to live lavish lives that include private jumbo jets, mega yachts and chateaux in southern Europe.
But he has insisted that a response – should one be mounted – not include a halt in the arms sales he says have created American jobs and led to an influx of cash. And there were few signs the administration planned to isolate or ostracize the Saudi regime as an investigation proceeds.
“Saudi has been a very good partners of ours in many areas,” Mnuchin said on Friday as he explained why he wasn’t canceling plans to attend the major investment summit, dubbed by some “Davos in the Desert.” A number of major news organizations and speakers have withdrawn their support for the conference.
“One of the areas why I’m going over there is last year we started the terrorist financing targeting center with all the Gulf countries and it’s based in Saudi. We co-chair with them,” he said. “They’ve been a terrific partner in combating terrorist financing with us.”
US officials continued to meet this week with their Saudi counterparts on areas of cooperation. On Thursday, the US anti-ISIS chief Brett McGurk met with Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir to discuss counter-terrorism. And on Wednesday, the US special envoy for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, and the top US diplomat in Saudi Arabia, chargé d’affaires Christopher Henzel, met in Riyadh with Prince Mohammed to discuss Afghanistan strategy.
An official Saudi description of the meeting said the group discussed “bilateral relations between the two friendly countries.” The State Department said the Khashoggi matter did not arise.
CNN’s Jeremy Diamond contributed to this report.