WASHINGTON/ISTANBUL: US President Donald Trump has accused Saudi Arabia of lying about the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, his strongest comments to date on the affair as pressure was building Sunday on the administration to strike a tougher line.
In an interview with the Washington Post published late Saturday, Trump stepped back from his stance that Saudi Arabia’s latest explanation for the death of the journalist inside their Istanbul consulate was credible, but said he remained confident in the leadership of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
“Obviously there’s been deception and there’s been lies,” he said of the shifting accounts offered by Riyadh.
Saudi officials originally said Khashoggi, who entered the diplomatic mission on October 2, had left unharmed, before announcing Friday he was killed inside the building in what they described as an altercation.
“Their stories are all over the place,” added Trump.
Saudi Arabia faced a growing chorus of incredulity Sunday, with world powers demanding answers. British and French officials denounced the latest Saudi explanation as insufficient. Canada’s foreign minister, Chrystia Freeland, said the Saudi version lacked “consistency and credibility.”
Closer to home, pressure continued to grow on Trump to take a stronger stance against Saudi Arabia, the world’s biggest oil exporter and a key regional power. Several senior members of Trump’s Republican Party said they believed Prince Mohammed, the kingdom’s de facto ruler, was linked to the killing, and one called for a “collective” Western response if a link is proved.
But Trump stopped far short of calling for the prince to be replaced, emphasizing as he has before how important the US-Saudi relationship is to Washington’s regional strategic goals.
He described the 33-year-old prince, widely known as MBS, as a “strong person; he has very good control.”
“He’s seen as a person who can keep things under check,” added Trump. “I mean that in a positive way.”
Trump added that he has yet to be shown any evidence by intelligence officials that would make him believe MBS had any direct role.
“Nobody has told me he’s responsible. Nobody has told me he’s not responsible. We haven’t reached that point. I haven’t heard either way,” the president said.