Trump slams mounting criticism of Saudi Arabia as a case of 'guilty until proven innocent'

  • President Donald Trump on Tuesday pushed back against a growing chorus of criticism against Saudi Arabia over the disappearance of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.
  • "Here we go again with you're guilty until proven innocent," Trump said in the interview.
  • Turkish officials told news outlets that Khashoggi had been murdered and dismembered with a bone saw when he entered the consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2. The Saudi government has denied the allegations.
President Donald Trump welcomes Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, U.S. March 20, 2018.
Jonathan Ernst | Reuters
President Donald Trump welcomes Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, U.S. March 20, 2018.

President Donald Trump on Tuesday pushed back against a growing chorus of criticism against Saudi Arabia over the disappearance of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.

"Here we go again with you're guilty until proven innocent," Trump said in the interview, comparing the allegations against Saudi Arabia to the sexual misconduct allegations from multiple women against Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh during his confirmation hearing.

Turkish officials told news outlets that Khashoggi had been murdered and dismembered with a bone saw when he entered the consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2. The Saudi government has denied the allegations.

Earlier Tuesday, Trump said "that would be bad" if Saudi Arabia's king and crown prince knew about the suspected killing of Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate.

"You'll start hearing what is happening," Trump told Fox Business Network in an interview scheduled to air Tuesday night.

"Turkey is looking at it very strongly. We are all looking at it together. But Turkey and Saudi Arabia are looking at it very strongly," the president said.

"And it depends whether or not the King [Salman] or Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman knew about it, in my opinion. Number one, what happened, but whether or not they knew about it." Bin Salman is the putative leader of Saudi Arabia.

"If they knew about it, that would be bad," Trump said.

Trump's comments came as a Turkish official told the Associated Press that a police search of that consulate found evidence that Khashoggi was killed there after last being seen entering it Oct. 2.

Trump, in a pair of tweets, said Tuesday he had spoken by phone with bin Salman, "who totally denied any knowledge of what happened" in the consulate. Bin Salman was with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Saudi Arabia during that call.

In a statement, Pompeo said he "had direct and candid conversations" with the king and the crown prince, as well as Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir.

"My assessment from these meetings is that there is serious commitment to determine all the facts and ensure accountability, including accountability for Saudi Arabia's senior leaders or senior officials," Pompeo added.

Pompeo will be traveling to Turkey's capital, Ankara, on Wednesday to discuss Khashoggi's case with senior leaders there.

'Rogue killers'

Trump had spoken by phone on Monday with King Salman, who likewise had denied knowledge of what happened to Khashoggi.

After speaking with the king, Trump told reporters that it had sounded like "maybe these could have been rogue killers — who knows?"

NBC News reported Tuesday that the Saudis are discussing issuing an explanation that would admit that Khashoggi was killed in the consulate while giving bin Salman so-called plausible deniability by saying he neither ordered the murder nor knew about it.

NBC also reported that a person with knowledge of the discussions said the kingdom will claim that rogue operatives killed the journalist during either an interrogation or an attempt to kidnap him and return him to his native Saudi Arabia.

Khashoggi, a Washington Post contributor, left Saudi Arabia last year. He had penned articles critical of the country's rulers.

Fred Ryan, the Post's publisher and CEO, in a statement Tuesday said, "It has been two weeks since Jamal Khashoggi disappeared in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul."

"The government of Saudi Arabia owes the Khashoggi family and the world a full and honest explanation of everything that happened to him, and we support the requests from Jamal's family and the United Nations for an independent international investigation," Ryan said.

"The Saudi government can no longer remain silent, and it is essential that our own government and others push harder for the truth. Until we have a full account and full accountability, it cannot be business as usual with the Saudi Government."

Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., called on Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin to cancel an upcoming planned trip to Saudi Arabia.

Sen. Lindsay Graham, R-S.C., a Trump ally, told reporters Tuesday that, "I believe this man was murdered."

"I don't think it was a rogue event. Things like that are not rogue," Graham said. "It seems to be a lot of planning went into it. The crown prince is very schizophrenic; one minute he's talking about a new Saudi Arabia, and the next minute he's throwing half his family in jail."

Graham said that the future of American and Saudi relations on the heels of the incident is "up to the Saudis."

"I don't expect to be doing business as usual," he said. "This is in your face, this is a lack of respect for our relationship, this is an affront to every value we embrace, extra-judicial killing, killing somebody for being a critic. Freedom of the press means a lot to us here in the United States."

"We deal with imperfect people all the time, but I cannot imagine a more blatant example of contempt for a relationship than this," Graham said. "So until something new happens in Saudi Arabia I have no interest in engaging with this government."