Trump rebukes Saudis, but also gives them more time

The Trump administration on Thursday offered its first rebuke of Saudi Arabia over the disappearance of a U.S.-based journalist widely believed to have been murdered at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

Treasury Secretary Steven MnuchinSteven Terner MnuchinThe Hill's Morning Report - Trump trial begins with clashes, concessions Hillicon Valley — Presented by Philip Morris International — Apple reportedly dropped plans to let iPhone users encrypt backups | Justices decline facial recognition case | Critics fear Facebook losing misinformation fight | Truce on French tech tax On The Money — Presented by Wells Fargo — Trump at Davos warns Europe on trade | President boasts about US economy to global elite | Experts say Trump trade victories may yield little growth MORE said he would pull out of a high-profile investment summit in Riyadh, an announcement he made shortly after Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoTrump downplays seriousness of injuries in Iran attack after US soldiers treated for concussions The Hill's Morning Report - Trump trial begins with clashes, concessions GOP rejects effort to compel documents on delayed Ukraine aid MORE said Saudi Arabia would have “a few more days” to complete an investigation into the disappearance of Jamal Khashoggi, who entered the Saudi Consulate on Oct. 2 and hasn’t been seen since.


Vice President Pence offered some of his most pointed comments yet on the case, telling reporters in Colorado that “if a journalist lost their life at the hand of violence, that is a threat to a free and independent press around the world and there will be consequences.”

“I can assure you that we’re going to follow the facts,” he said.

The developments signaled the Trump administration’s patience with Saudi Arabia is becoming limited amid the growing international outcry over Khashoggi's fate.  

But by leaving the Khashoggi investigation in the Saudis' hands, the administration sent mixed signals about just how forceful it will be with its close Middle East ally. 

New reports this week from Turkey have said there is audio of people cutting off Khashoggi’s fingers and beheading him at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. The New York Times reported Thursday that U.S. intelligence agencies increasingly believe Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was responsible for whatever happened to Khashoggi.

Top Saudi officials, including Mohammed and King Salman, have told Trump and Pompeo they have no knowledge of what happened to the journalist.

The administration is facing pressure from Republican lawmakers in Congress, who have warned of sanctions on Saudi Arabia if its government was responsible for killing Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist who resided in the Washington, D.C., suburbs. Khashoggi was critical of bin Salman's stewardship of the Saudi government and the Trump administration's foreign policy.  

Some of those lawmakers have been openly critical of the crown prince, commonly known as MBS. Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamSenator-jurors who may not be impartial? Remove them for cause Broad, bipartisan rebuke for proposal to pull troops from Africa What to watch for as Senate organizes impeachment on day one MORE (R-S.C.) said this week that MBS “has got to go.”

It’s unclear how independent any investigation by Saudi Arabia would have from the crown prince, and Republicans indicated they would not accept a probe designed to exonerate top Saudi officials.

“America can't excuse & minimize the brutal & gruesome murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a US resident & columnist. Our country is defined by human values, by principle above convenience, & by commitment to morality. We must subject the perpetrators of this outrage to withering sanction,” said Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneySenate Republicans muscle through rules for Trump trial Senate blocks push to subpoena Bolton in impeachment trial Impeachment trial begins with furor over rules MORE, a Republican Senate candidate in Utah and the GOP's 2012 presidential nominee.

After meeting with President TrumpDonald John TrumpRouhani says Iran will never seek nuclear weapons Trump downplays seriousness of injuries in Iran attack after US soldiers treated for concussions Trump says Bloomberg is 'wasting his money' on 2020 campaign MORE, Pompeo told reporters he had made clear to the Saudis “that we take this matter with respect to Mr. Khashoggi very seriously” before stating that they should receive “a few more days” to complete the probe.

“They made clear to me that they too understand the serious nature of the disappearance of Mr. Khashoggi,” Pompeo said of the Saudis. “They also assured me that they will conduct a complete, thorough investigation of all of the facts surrounding Mr. Khashoggi and that they will do so in a timely fashion.”

Pompeo and Trump, who has put a strong relationship with Saudi Arabia at the center of his foreign policy, have both come under criticism for their handling of the Khashoggi crisis. 

Trump denied on Wednesday that he is trying to offer cover for the Saudis a day after comparing Saudi Arabia to Supreme Court Justice Brett KavanaughBrett Michael KavanaughHow Citizens United altered America's political landscape Overnight Health Care: Justices won't fast-track ObamaCare case before election | New virus spreads from China to US | Collins challenger picks up Planned Parenthood endorsement Progressive group targets Collins over vote for Kavanaugh in new digital ad campaign MORE, telling The Associated Press “here we go again with, you know, you’re guilty until proven innocent. I don’t like that.”

Pompeo was filmed with a smile on his face in Riyadh, and also was criticized for saying that he did not talk about any of the facts” on the Khashoggi matter with Saudi Arabia.

There have been signs that the White House has been unhappy with media coverage suggesting they’ve taken too soft a line with Saudi Arabia, and that both Pompeo and Trump would like to correct that impression.

Trump in a tweet on Thursday said he had discussed the Khashoggi case “in great detail” with Pompeo and that “he is waiting for the results of the investigations being done by the Saudis and Turkey.”

Turkish police have expanded their investigation into Khashoggi's disappearance, saying they will search two areas outside of Istanbul in addition to the Saudi Consulate. Turkish officials have also confirmed grisly details surrounding Khashoggi's alleged killing to Western media outlets.

Even as Trump and Pompeo sought to signal they were taking a serious approach to the matter and needed to hear explanations from Riyadh, Pompeo also made clear that the administration wants to maintain an alliance with Saudi Arabia.

“I think it's important for all of us to understand, too, we have a long — since 1932 — a long strategic relationship with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia,” he said. “They are an important strategic alliance of the United States and we need to be mindful of that as well.”

Those comments echo Trump's belief that any potential U.S. response must take into consideration the country's security ties to the Saudis.

The president has previously said he does not want to cancel or suspend an agreement to sell billions of dollars worth of weapons to Saudi Arabia, arguing it would hurt U.S. jobs.

"I don’t like the concept of stopping an investment of $110 billion into the United States. Because you know what they’re going to do? They’re going to take that money and spend it in Russia or China, or someplace else," he said last week.

Critics said Trump's response is another example of the president putting geopolitical and economic concerns ahead of human rights. They have also raised questions about whether Trump's personal financial ties to Saudi Arabia have affected his handling of the crisis.

A Saudi billionaire, Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, purchased Trump's yacht and a large stake in the Plaza Hotel in the 1990s when the former business mogul was in dire financial straits. The Saudi government bought an entire floor of the Trump World Tower in New York in 2001 and has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars at the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C.

Trump has denied having any financial conflicts of interest with Saudi Arabia.

-- Updated 2:48 p.m.