WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump said a prominent Saudi Arabian journalist is likely dead and his Treasury secretary called off plans to attend a Saudi investment conference next week, amid strains over how to react to the suspected death of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
The comments and actions from the Trump administration on Thursday marked another shift after days of mixed messages over the fate of Khashoggi, who hasn’t been seen since entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2.
Turkish officials have cited evidence suggesting that Khashoggi was beaten, tortured, dismembered and killed while in the consulate by men with connections to the Saudi government, though Saudi officials have denied any foul play.
Trump administration officials said they haven’t listened to what Turkish officials said was recorded audio evidence.
As an international furor grew, Trump said on Tuesday that Saudi Arabia should be considered innocent until proven guilty, comparing the charges against the kingdom to harassment accusations against Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh.
On Wednesday, he said he wanted answers but stressed the importance of United States-Saudi ties on economic, political and security matters.
On Thursday, after receiving a briefing from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who had traveled to Saudi Arabia and Turkey over the previous two days, Trump was asked if Khashoggi was dead. “It certainly looks that way to me,” he said, calling the matter “very sad” and saying he was still waiting on the results of “about three different investigations.”
He said the consequences for Khashoggi’s death would have to be “very severe” without specifying what they might entail and whom they might target. “It’s bad, bad stuff,” he said.
Earlier Thursday, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin announced in a tweet that after consulting with Messrs. Trump and Pompeo, “I will not be participating in the Future Investment Initiative summit in Saudi Arabia.”
The Treasury secretary currently still plans to travel next week to Saudi Arabia for previously scheduled official but private meetings unrelated to the summit, according to people familiar with the matter.
Many Western attendees have bowed out of the conference after the fallout over the missing journalist’s fate.
But Mnuchin’s intention to maintain nonpublic meetings with Saudi officials shows the Trump administration’s attempt to find a delicate balance between its interests in a key US ally and its concern over the fate of Khashoggi.
Earlier Thursday, Pompeo briefed Trump on his visit to Riyadh and told reporters at the White House that Saudi Arabia understood the “serious nature” of the situation and has vowed to conduct a “complete and thorough” investigation of the matter.
The secretary of state also said he advised the president to give Saudi Arabia “a few more days” to complete its probe into what happened to Khashoggi.
After the investigation, he said, the US can decide “how or if” to respond.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, speaking at a forum in Sochi on Thursday, complained of a double standard of evidence used by Western countries, including the US.
Days after a former Russian spy was poisoned in London in March, the US and other Western powers formally blamed the Kremlin.
He said no evidence had been provided backing accusations that led to sanctions on Russia, yet no sanctions have been imposed against “the country suspected of murdering a journalist,” the Russian news agency RIA Novosti quoted Putin as saying.
The Turkish government said it has an audio recording establishing Khashoggi was killed in the consulate.
The Saudi government denies any wrongdoing.
The White House has tried to mediate the dispute between two of its Middle East allies and has struggled to weigh the US’s longstanding strategic ties with the kingdom against growing calls for Washington to intervene more forcefully.
Mnuchin’s decision not to attend the Saudi investment conference comes after several high-profile Western firms pulled out.
International Monetary Fund chief Christine Lagarde, Glencore PLC Chairman Tony Hayward and two executives at Magic Leap, a Florida-based augmented-reality startup in which Saudi Arabia invested $400 million, announced their withdrawals from the conference on Wednesday.
Also withdrawing from the event, according to a person familiar with the matter, is Roni Bahar, an executive at New York-based office-sharing startup WeWork Cos., which is partly owned by the Saudi-backed SoftBank Vision Fund.
21st Century Fox Inc.’s Fox Business Network said Thursday it canceled its sponsorship of and participation in the Saudi investment conference.
Fox Business anchor Maria Bartiromo won’t attend the conference unless an opportunity for an unrestricted interview with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman comes through, a person familiar with the matter said.
21st Century Fox and News Corp, The Wall Street Journal’s parent company, share common ownership.
Executives at Uber Technologies Inc., JP Morgan Chase & Co., Blackstone Group and Mastercard Inc. are among those who backed out earlier.
The conference, informally referred to as “Davos in the Desert,” was meant to showcase Saudi Arabia as an investor-friendly place that is becoming more tolerant.
The increasing number of withdrawals has raised the prospect that the crown prince would cancel or postpone the event.
The 33-year-old prince, the nation’s day-to-day leader, has been the driving force behind the conference.
Saudi Arabia’s allies in the Arab world have strongly supported it, backing regional companies who still plan to attend.
Pakistani officials confirmed on Thursday that Prime Minister Imran Khan would attend the Saudi conference. Khan’s decision to attend came after a phone call with the crown prince, officials said.
Khan’s government, in office since August, inherited a balance-of-payments crisis that has seen its foreign-exchange reserves plummet to critical levels.
It is looking for urgent financial help from allies, particularly Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and China, as well as seeking longer-term investment in Pakistan.
Mnuchin, the top finance official from the world’s largest economy, was seen as a key attendee at the conference.
It was conceived as a central part of promoting the crown prince’s “Saudi Vision 2030,” an effort to diversify the kingdom’s heavily oil-dependent economy and move the country’s Islamic legal system into what the prince called a more moderate state, including scaling back the broad legal restrictions on women.
Saudi Arabia has long been one of Washington’s most important allies in the Middle East, most recently as the primary challenger to Iran’s efforts to dominate the Middle East political system.
Mnuchin’s visit to Saudi Arabia, just two weeks before the second phase of Washington’s new economy-crippling sanctions program against Iran coming into force, was designed to bolster regional efforts to shut down all financial and trade flows in and out of Iran.
The Saudi government has also played an active role in fighting some elements of US-designated terror groups, both in the country and in the region at large, including al Qaeda, Hezbollah, the Taliban, and Lashkar-e-Tayyiba.
The secretary’s visit marks the first anniversary of the new Terrorist Financing Targeting Center set up in Riyadh last year by the US, Saudi Arabia and other regional governments.