WASHINGTON/ISTANBUL (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump on Thursday said the authorities were getting closer to understanding the disappearance of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, as Turkish investigators prepared to enter the Saudi consulate in Istanbul where he was last seen.
“I have to find out what happened…and we’re probably getting closer than you might think,” Trump said in an interview on the Fox News’ “Fox & Friends” program.
Global pressure has mounted on close U.S. ally Saudi Arabia about the disappearance of Khashoggi, a prominent critic of Saudi policies, who entered the consulate on Oct. 2 to get documents for his planned marriage. His Turkish fiancée, Hatice Cengiz, who was waiting outside, said he never re-appeared.
Turkish sources have said they believe Khashoggi was killed inside the building and his body removed, allegations that Riyadh dismisses as baseless.
A team of investigators is preparing to go into the consulate, a Turkish security official told Reuters.
“Now, they are waiting (for) the final permission to enter the consulate,” the official said, following an initial offer from Saudi authorities. It was unclear when that might happen.
Later on Thursday, Turkey accepted a Saudi proposal to form a joint working group to investigate the case, Turkish presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin was quoted as saying by Anadolu agency.
In the interview, Trump said the United States was working with Turkey and Saudi Arabia, adding, “We have investigators over there.”
But three U.S. law enforcement sources said that because Khashoggi is not an American citizen and disappeared outside the country, the FBI has no automatic jurisdiction to get involved in the case and could only become involved if requested by a foreign government such as Turkey.
Senior U.S. officials, including Trump’s senior adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner, have spoken with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman about Khashoggi’s disappearance. Kushner and the crown prince forged a close relationship soon after Trump took office.
Trump made Saudi Arabia the first stop on his first foreign trip as president in May 2017, but in recent weeks has appeared to sour a bit on Riyadh, complaining directly to King Salman about the cost of American support for the Saudi military and for OPEC oil price increases.
The U.S.-Saudi relationship is being further tested by the Khashoggi case as the administration finds itself under pressure from Congress, where there has already been tension over Riyadh’s role in the Yemen war.
A bipartisan group of U.S. senators on Wednesday triggered a U.S. investigation into Khashoggi’s disappearance using a human rights law.
But Trump signaled on Thursday he would be unwilling to take action that might jeopardize Saudi investment in the United States, especially billions of dollars in defense deal.
“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,” Trump said.
He added “There are other things we can do,” without elaborating.
Bob Corker, chairman of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, insisted significant sanctions would have to be imposed at the “highest levels” of the Saudi government if it were found that the government was behind his killing.
Increasing pressure, he said arms sales to Saudi Arabia would not pass Congress at this stage.
After becoming defense minister three years ago, Prince Mohammed sidelined two powerful cousins who ran the ministries of interior and national guard, consolidating control of the kingdom’s security apparatus. That has given him vast authority to curb domestic criticism but could now make him the focus of any foreign criticism.
INVESTIGATING ALL ASPECTS
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said his country was worried about Khashoggi’s disappearance and cannot remain silent.
“We are investigating all aspects of the event. It is not possible for us to remain silent regarding such an occurrence, because it is not a common occurrence,” he said in comments quoted by Hurriyet newspaper on Thursday.
He also questioned assertions by Saudi authorities that the consulate does not have footage of Khashoggi leaving the building as the mission’s security cameras only provide live footage and do not record images.
“Is it possible for there to be no camera systems at the Saudi Arabia consulate, where the event took place?,” Erdogan said.
Pro-government Turkish daily Sabah on Wednesday published preliminary evidence from investigators it said identified a 15-member Saudi intelligence team involved in Khashoggi’s disappearance.
One is a forensic expert who has worked at the Saudi Interior Ministry for 20 years, according to a LinkedIn profile. Other names and photos match officers in the Saudi Army and Air Force, as identified by previous Saudi media reports and in one case a Facebook profile.
The Saudi consulate referred Reuters to authorities in Riyadh who have not responded to questions about the 15 Saudis, who Sabah said traveled on diplomatic passports, arriving in Istanbul hours before Khashoggi disappeared.
Khashoggi’s disappearance is likely to further deepen divisions between Turkey and Saudi Arabia. Relations were already strained after Turkey sent troops to the Gulf state of Qatar last year in a show of support after its Gulf neighbors, including Saudi Arabia, imposed an embargo on Doha.
The Khashoggi incident has been largely absent from Saudi media, but on Thursday Saudi-owned newspaper Asharq al Awsat cited an unnamed source who said the kingdom was being targeted by “those who try to exploit the reality of the disappearance”.
Erdogan, whose AK Party is rooted in political Islam, also supported a government in Egypt led by the Muslim Brotherhood, which Saudi Arabia has designated a terrorist movement.
Additional reporting by Sarah Dadouch, Ali Kucukgocmen, Orhan Coskun and Tuvan Gumrukcu in Istanbul and Susan Heavey, Doina Chiacu and Patricia Zengerle in Washington; Writing by Stephen Kalin and Yara Bayoumy; Editing by William Maclean and Alistair Bell