Donald Trump says the US has asked Turkey for an audio recording of Jamal Khashoggi’s death which reportedly proves he was brutally tortured before his premeditated murder inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
Turkish officials said the audio recording had been handed over to the US and Saudi Arabia. But on Wednesday, Trump told reporters: “We’ve asked for it … if it exists” – before adding that it “probably does” exist.
Trump had previously suggested he believes the denials of responsibility from the Saudi King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and warned against a rush to judgement.
On Wednesday, Trump denied he was covering up for the Saudi royals but at the same time pointed to their importance as strategic and commercial partners.
“I’m not giving cover at all. And with that being said, Saudi Arabia has been a very important ally of ours in the Middle East. We are stopping Iran,” he told reporters.
I’m not giving cover at all. And with that being said, Saudi Arabia has been a very important ally of ours in the Middle East. We are stopping Iran,” he told reporters.
But Trump’s defence of the Saudi royals has become increasingly difficult as Turkish government leaks and press reports have revealed more details about the grisly nature of Khashoggi’s fate and the involvement of Saudi operatives close to the Saudi crown prince.
The evidence, if confirmed, would also undermine any Saudi attempt to claim that Khashoggi’s death was the result of an interrogation gone wrong, carried out by rogue elements in the Saudi intelligence and security services. Multiple reports have suggested that Riyadh was contemplating putting out a narrative along those
According to an account in the pro-government daily newspaper Yeni Şafak, and a later report citing Turkish officials by the New York Times, the audio recording proves that Khashoggi was seized as soon as he entered the office of the Saudi consul, Mohammad al-Otaibi, on 2 October.
The dissident journalist was beaten and had his fingers cut off, according to the news account. Otaiba asked for the torture to be done outside his office, saying: “You will put me in trouble.”
“If you want to live when you come back to Arabia, shut up,” the consul was told by a Saudi hit team who had flown to Istanbul hours before Khashoggi’s planned visit to the consulate, where he had expected to pick up legal papers he needed to get married.
Khashoggi was beheaded and his body was cut up. A Saudi forensics specialist Salah Muhammad al-Tubaigy can be heard putting on headphones to listen to music and telling others to do the same while the body was dismembered, according to the reports.
Investigators believe that after the killing, Khashoggi’s body was taken to the consul general’s house, where it was disposed of.
Police set up barricades outside the residence on Tuesday evening to carry out a planned search of the premises, but Turkey was waiting for an agreement with Saudi Arabia to do so. Under the Vienna convention, diplomatic missions are considered foreign soil.
Otaibi, who has not been seen in public since the scandal erupted, left Turkey on a commercial flight to Riyadh on Tuesday.
A search of the house and some diplomatic vehicles was planned for Wednesday evening, as well as a second sweep of the consulate.
Several Saudi investigators arrived at the consular residence on Wednesday afternoon before the joint investigation.
It is unclear how the Turkish authorities obtained audio recordings of the murder, but officials have briefed multiple news organisations on their macabre contents.
The US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, initially refused to say whether he had heard the recordings at meetings at Istanbul airport on Wednesday morning with President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Turkish foreign minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu. His spokeswoman later said that he had not.
In Washington, Donald Trump has come under increasing pressure for his defence of the Saudi regime, in the face of revulsion from top Republicans in the Senate.
Saudi Arabia, they’re an ally, and they’re a tremendous purchaser of, not only military equipment, but other things
In response to reporters’ questions about the case, Trump repeated past claims about US sales to Saudi Arabia, which have previously been shown to be vastly exaggerated.
“If you look at Saudi Arabia, they’re an ally, and they’re a tremendous purchaser of not only military equipment but other things,” he said. “When I went there, they committed to purchase $450bn worth of things, and $110bn worth of military. Those are the biggest orders in the history of this country, probably the history of the world.”
The $110bn figure has been shown to have been hugely inflated, apparently reflecting some arms deals done under the Obama administration, and some statements of intent from Riyadh, but very few – if any – new contracts.
The Saudi government claimed at the time of Trump’s visit to Riyadh in May 2017 that the two countries would do $380bn in total business together, but that also appeared to be an aspirational figure.
Trump has denied any personal financial relationship with the Saudi monarchy but in the past he has sold a yacht and apartments for millions of dollars to Saudi customers and Saudis continue to use his hotels.
The president insisted he was determined to get to the bottom of the Khashoggi case.
“I want to find out what happened, where is the fault, and we will probably know that by the end of the week. But Mike Pompeo is coming back, we’re gonna have a long talk,” Trump said.
In his own remarks to reporters in Istanbul, Pompeo would not comment on whether the Saudi journalist was dead or alive, but there is little doubt now among US officials that he was assassinated. Some of the 15-strong Saudi hit team that flew to Istanbul and lay in wait for Khashoggi in the consulate, are members of the crown prince’s entourage.
The team arrived on on two Gulfstream jets that flew in to Istanbul on 2 October, the day of Khashoggi’s disappearance and returned to Riyadh on 3 October. The planes belonged to an aviation company that was seized by the Saudi government last year.
The New York Times reported on Tuesday that four of the men identified by Turkish media as part of a 15-man hit squad sent from Riyadh to silence Khashoggi were members of Bin Salman’s personal security detail. Tubaigy, holds a senior position in the Saudi interior ministry.
Before meeting Pompeo, Erdoğan had revealed signs of an attempted cover-up in the Saudi consulate, saying police had found freshly painted walls and “toxic” substances during a search of the building.
Çavuşoğlu described the two 40-minute meetings with Pompeo as “beneficial and fruitful”. After their conversation, Pompeo did not reveal what Erdoğan had told him about the investigation, other than to claim the Saudis were cooperating fully after “a couple of delays”.
“He made clear that the Saudis had cooperated with the investigation that the Turks are engaged in, and that they are going to share information that they learned with the Saudis as well,” Pompeo said. “There had been a couple of delays but they seemed pretty confident that the Saudis would permit them to do the things they needed to do to complete their thorough and complete investigation.”
Pompeo has attracted fierce criticism for his seemingly jovial meeting on Tuesday with the Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman. Several of Bin Salman’s security detail have been identified in press reports as members of the hit squad alleged to have murdered Khashoggi in the consulate.
Asked whether the Saudis had told him whether Khashoggi was dead or alive, Pompeo replied: “I don’t want to talk about any of the facts. They didn’t want to either, in that they want to have the opportunity to complete this investigation in a thorough way.”
Pompeo also claimed there was serious commitment in Riyadh to “determine all the facts and ensure accountability”.
After his meetings with the Turkish leadership, Pompeo said it was reasonable to give the Saudis more time to do so.
“It’s not about benefit of the doubt,” Pompeo said. “It’s that it is reasonable to give them a handful of days more to complete that so they get it right so that it’s thorough and complete and that’s what they’ve indicated they need and I’m hopeful that we’ll get to see it.”
However, he made clear that the Trump administration would take the broader US relationship with the Saudi regime into account in deciding how to respond to the Khashoggi case.
“I do think it’s important that everyone keeps in their mind that we have a lot of important relationships – financial relationships between US and Saudi companies, governmental relationships – things we work on together all across the world. The efforts to reduce the risk to the United States of America from the world’s largest state sponsor of terror, Iran,” Pompeo said.
“The Saudis have been great partners in working alongside us on those issues … And we just need to make sure that we are mindful of that as we approach decisions that the United States government will take.”
But the suspects’ direct links to the Saudi establishment weaken the suggestion made by Trump that the alleged murder could have been carried out by “rogue killers” in an unauthorised operation.