Trump changes tone on Saudi Arabia amid mounting pressure

The Trump administration on Thursday shifted course in its handling of the Jamal Khashoggi case, responding to increased pressure from GOP critics and others calling on the president to hold Saudi Arabia accountable for the apparent death of the U.S.-based journalist in Turkey.

President TrumpDonald John TrumpMcCabe says he was fired because he 'opened a case against' Trump McCabe: Trump said 'I don't care, I believe Putin' when confronted with US intel on North Korea McCabe: Trump talked to me about his election victory during 'bizarre' job interview MORE issued his sternest rebuke of Saudi Arabia so far on Thursday afternoon, telling reporters on the tarmac of Joint Base Andrews that “it certainly looks” as though the Washington Post columnist was murdered, and he threatened “very severe” consequences for Saudi Arabia if they’re found to be responsible.

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Earlier in the day, Treasury Secretary Steven MnuchinSteven Terner MnuchinHillicon Valley: Facebook weighs crackdown on anti-vaccine content | Lyft challenges Trump fuel standards rollback | Illinois tries to woo Amazon | New round of China trade talks next week On The Money: Trump declares emergency at border | Braces for legal fight | Move divides GOP | Trump signs border deal to avoid shutdown | Winners, losers from spending fight | US, China trade talks to resume next week Treasury sanctions top Maduro allies in Venezuela MORE announced his withdrawal from a high-profile investment summit in Riyadh next week, marking the administration’s first public rebuke of the Saudis over the incident. He announced his plans after discussions with Trump and Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoHeather Nauert withdraws her name from consideration for UN ambassador job The Hill's Morning Report — Presented by the American Academy of HIV Medicine — Trump, Congress prepare for new border wall fight Overnight Defense: Trump to sign funding deal, declare national emergency | Shanahan says allies will be consulted on Afghanistan | Dem demands Khashoggi documents MORE, who met with top Saudi and Turkish officials earlier this week.

Pompeo said Thursday that Saudi Arabia would have “a few more days” to complete an investigation into the disappearance of Khashoggi, who entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2 and hasn’t been seen since. He said he emphasized to the Saudis that the U.S. takes this matter "very seriously."

He also signaled that the administration would not sit back and wait for an open-ended investigation by Saudi officials to stretch on for weeks.

“They made clear to me that they, too, understand the serious nature of the disappearance of Mr. Khashoggi,” Pompeo said. “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.”

The developments reflect a recognition within the administration that its tolerant stance on Saudi Arabia — including instances of Trump repeating the denials of King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of any knowledge of Khashoggi’s death — is no longer tenable.

Until Thursday, Trump and his top aides had been reluctant to criticize the Saudis over Khashoggi's disappearance and the president even floated the possibility that “rogue killers” were responsible for the alleged attack.

Several GOP lawmakers called on Mnuchin to skip the conference in Saudi Arabia while others complained about a lack of information about the investigation from the White House and State Department.

After days of silence, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob CorkerRobert (Bob) Phillips CorkerSasse’s jabs at Trump spark talk of primary challenger RNC votes to give Trump 'undivided support' ahead of 2020 Sen. Risch has unique chance to guide Trump on foreign policy MORE (R-Tenn.) said Wednesday that it appeared the administration was trying to protect the Saudi royal family from a public relations fallout.

Corker told The Washington Post that the administration had clamped down on intelligence related to Khashoggi’s disappearance in an effort to avoid implicating senior Saudi officials.

While the president and his senior advisers responded more forcefully Thursday, they also sent mixed signals by leaving the probe in Saudi hands. Pompeo, for example, said he did not listen to the audio recordings that Turkish officials say they have of Khashoggi’s torture and interrogation in the Saudi consulate.

New reports this week from Turkey have said a team of Saudi agents intercepted Khashoggi inside the consulate, cut off his fingers, beheaded him and then dismembered his body.

Saudi rulers are considering blaming a top intelligence official close to the crown prince for the alleged murder, according to The New York Times.

That would represent a significant shift for Saudi Arabia, one that would also absolve Crown Prince Mohammed but subsequently contradict reported U.S. and Turkish intelligence showing he was connected to the operation.

The administration is facing outrage from Republican and Democratic lawmakers in Congress who have demanded a forceful response to Saudi Arabia if its government is shown to be responsible for killing Khashoggi, whose writing has been critical of both the crown prince’s stewardship of the Saudi government and the Trump administration's foreign policy.

Growing evidence of the Prince Mohammed’s connection to the 15 Saudi agents who have been implicated in Khashoggi’s apparent death has turned opinion against him on Capitol Hill.

Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamGraham: More urgent for kids in Kentucky to have secure border than new school 
 White House, GOP defend Trump emergency declaration Limbaugh calls 25th Amendment discussions 'silent coup' MORE (R-S.C.), normally one of Trump’s most stalwart allies, said this week that MBS — as Mohammed bin Salman is known — “has got to go.”

“Saudi Arabia is a strategic ally, but the last thing we want to do is continue on with a ‘Business as Usual’ approach until the killing of Mr. Khashoggi is resolved,” he tweeted Thursday.

After Trump delivered his latest comments, Graham said he had spoken with the president and that his team is doing a "good job" handling the Khashoggi crisis.

Rep. Mark MeadowsMark Randall MeadowsThe Hill's Morning Report — Presented by the American Academy of HIV Medicine — Trump, Congress prepare for new border wall fight Winners and losers in the border security deal GOP braces for Trump's emergency declaration MORE (R-N.C.), head of the ultra-conservative Freedom Caucus and a close Trump ally, said Thursday the crisis "must be addressed in a firm and resolute manner," but he did not provide details of what actions he wants to see.

He also declined to say whether he has spoken with Trump about Khashoggi, saying his conservations with the president are private.

Republicans have 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,” Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneyTrump tweets video mocking Dems not cheering during State of the Union For 2020, Democrats are lookin’ for somebody to love Trump religious adviser calls anti-Trump evangelicals 'spineless morons' MORE, a Republican Senate candidate in Utah and the GOP's 2012 presidential nominee, tweeted Thursday. “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.”

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 on Wednesday denied that he is trying to offer cover for the Saudis a day after comparing Saudi Arabia to Supreme Court Justice Brett KavanaughBrett Michael KavanaughVirginia can be better than this Constitutional conservatives need to oppose the national emergency Kavanaugh shows his stripes on Supreme Court's 'shadow docket' MORE, telling the Associated Press: “Here we go again with, you know, you’re guilty until proven innocent. I don’t like that.”

TV footage of Pompeo in Riyadh showed him with a smile on his face, and he also was criticized for saying he did not talk about “any of the facts” on the Khashoggi matter with Saudi officials during his visit.

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 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.”

Vice President Pence offered some of his most pointed comments yet on the case, telling reporters in Colorado on Thursday 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 added.

Turkish police have expanded their investigation into Khashoggi's disappearance, saying they will search two areas outside Istanbul in addition to a second search of the Saudi consulate.

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 talked about how the administration wants to maintain its 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 echoed 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 American jobs.

"I don’t like the concept of stopping an investment of $110 billion into the United States,” Trump said last week. “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."

Critics say 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.

Scott Wong contributed.