WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump tweeted Tuesday that he spoke with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who “totally denied” any knowledge of the events that led to the disappearance of a Washington Post columnist from the Saudi consulate in Istanbul two weeks ago.
The crown prince, referred to as MBS in international circles, promised a “full and complete” investigation into Jamal Khashoggi’s fate, with answers to follow shortly, Trump added.
Khashoggi, a Saudi national, is missing and believed dead. His body parts were hauled out of the diplomatic building, according to a Turkish official.
The president’s statement follows two days during which reports swirled that the Saudi kingdom was prepared to admit to having a role in Khashoggi’s death as the result of an apparent interrogation and attempted kidnapping gone wrong.
With no meetings on the public schedule, Trump spent Tuesday slamming out a series of tweets on pet issues and keeping tabs on a story that has put his administration in a vice grip — the suspected murder of a journalist for an American newspaper under diplomatic cover involving a valued U.S. ally.
The story has turned Trump into chief explainer for the ruling House of Saud. On Monday, after talking to King Salman, Trump told reporters the monarch “firmly denied any knowledge” of Khashoggi’s fate, and he posited that “rogue killers” might be behind the disappearance.
Sen. Christopher Murphy, D-Conn., responded on Twitter, “Been hearing the ridiculous ‘rogue killers’ theory was where the Saudis would go with this. Absolutely extraordinary they were able to enlist the President of the United States as their PR agent.”
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who flew to Riyadh on Monday, met separately with the king and crown prince Tuesday. Trump said Pompeo was with Mohammed when they spoke.
Riyadh was Trump’s first stop during his first foreign trip as president last year — a stopover replete with photo opportunities of the president celebrating a sword dance with Saudi leaders.
Trump viewed his pivot away from Iran and toward the Saudis and Egypt as a return to long-term allies that might not share values but shared self-interest.
In the wake of Khashoggi’s disappearance, Washington did not share the love. On “Fox and Friends,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said he was “personally offended” and asserted that the crown prince “has got to go.”
Graham was one of 10 Republican and 11 Democratic senators who signed a letter to authorize an investigation into whether Khashoggi was the victim of a human-rights violation so serious as to prompt sanctions under the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act.
While Trump has said he would support sanctions if the Saudi government is guilty, he also told “6o Minutes” he did not want to jeopardize a multibillion-dollar arms deal announced last year that would net U.S. interests huge profits and create American jobs.
Al Arabiya general manager Turki Aldakhil responded to talk of U.S. sanctions with a threat on oil prices.
“If the price of oil reaching $80 (a barrel) angered President Trump,” Aldakhil wrote, “no one should rule out the price jumping to $100, or $200, or even double that figure.”
Trump on Tuesday also criticized the rapidly mounting global condemnation of Saudi Arabia as a rush to judgment.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Trump compared the case of Khashoggi, who was last seen entering the Istanbul consulate Oct. 2, to the allegations of sexual assault leveled against Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh during his confirmation hearing.
“I think we have to find out what happened first,” Trump said. “Here we go again with, you know, you’re guilty until proven innocent. I don’t like that.”
“I think it would be a mistake to stampede the Saudis before the facts are all known,” agreed James Phillips, Middle East research fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation.
“I think President Trump is doing his best to preserve a very important alliance for U.S. interests in the Middle East,” Phillips added.
In March, “60 Minutes” aired a profile that portrayed Mohammed as a leader who “is emancipating women, introducing music and cinema and cracking down on corruption.”
“There are people who are out there who are asking if MBS is a reformer or an autocrat,” said Jonathan Schanzer of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “And my answer to them is, yes. You can be both.”
When Trump wooed Saudi Arabia
“America is a sovereign nation and our first priority is always the safety and security of our citizens. We are not here to lecture—we are not here to tell other people how to live, what to do, who to be, or how to worship. Instead, we are here to offer partnership – based on shared interests and values – to pursue a better future for us all.”
-President Donald Trump in Riyadh, May 21, 2017