WASHINGTON – Donald Trump appeared to be taking Saudi Arabia at its word Monday as he described how King Salman “firmly” and “strongly” issued a “flat denial” that he or his crown prince had any knowledge of or role in the disappearance of Jamal Khashoggi.
In describing his morning phone conversation with the king, the U.S. president repeatedly emphasized the strenuous nature of the ruler’s denials — even as he confirmed that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was travelling to the Middle East to learn more about the fate of the Saudi national and Washington Post columnist, who vanished inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
Khashoggi — a “Saudi Arabian citizen,” Trump noted, although he lived in the U.S. — was last seen entering the consulate two weeks ago. Turkish officials have said they have audio recordings that prove the journalist, a known critic of the Saudi regime, was killed inside, his body dismembered for easy disposal.
“The king firmly denied any knowledge of it,” Trump said. “He didn’t really know — maybe, I don’t really want to get into his mind, but it sounded to me like maybe these could have been rogue killers, who knows. We’re going to try getting to the bottom of it very soon. But his was a flat denial.”
Before day’s end, media reports citing anonymous sources began to appear saying Saudi officials were considering issuing a public statement that would indeed say that Khashoggi died in Saudi custody, a consequence of an interrogation gone wrong. But it was unclear Monday when — or even if — such a statement would be released, according to the reports.
Turkish and Saudi investigators began Monday what Turkish officials call a joint “inspection” of the consulate — but not before a cleaning crew walked in armed with mops, trash bags and cartons of milk, said to be good for removing bloodstains.
American lawmakers have threatened tough punitive action against the Saudis, and Germany, France and Britain have jointly called for a “credible investigation” into Khashoggi’s disappearance. Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland tweeted a link to that statement Sunday, adding, “Canada strongly supports our allies on this important issue.”
Freeland said she spoke Monday with Saudi foreign minister Adel al-Jubeir, and remains in close contact with her U.S., German and British counterparts as the global community awaits more answers.
“Canada and our government has a strong record of standing up for human rights around the world, very much including in Saudi Arabia, and we’re going to continue to do that,” she said outside the House of Commons.
“It’s important to establish clear facts about what has happened, and it’s important for the international community to be clear that those facts need to be established in a clear and transparent manner.”
Turkish officials allege a Saudi hit team that flew into and out of Turkey on Oct. 2 killed and dismembered Khashoggi, who had written Washington Post columns that were critical of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, also known as MBS. The kingdom has called such allegations “baseless” but has not offered any evidence Khashoggi ever left the consulate.
If the allegations prove true, experts fear it would be just one more example of autocratic rulers feeling emboldened by the slow disintegration of the international world order, thanks in large part to a White House that’s willing to look the other way.
“I do think the norms have eroded and the guardrails (have) come down under Donald Trump,” said Colin Robertson, a former Canadian diplomat and foreign policy expert who serves as vice-president and fellow at the Calgary-based Canadian Global Affairs Institute.
Robertson cited the brazen poisoning in March of Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Julia, an attack attributed to but denied by the Russian government, as just one instance of international malfeasance that seems to be filling the breach left by a lack of strong U.S. foreign policy.
“Autocrats are taking liberties — Skripal, drug hit squads, poison gas, trolls and bots and fake news, prison without trial. They believe they can get away with it because for the new sheriff it’s ‘America First,’ full stop.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau suggested Monday that Canada won’t shy away from taking up the cause.
“Canada will always be very firm … about standing up for human rights all around the world because Canadians expect it of our government,” Trudeau said in an interview as part of the Fortune Global Forum in Toronto.
“But the world also expects it of Canada — to be the clear voice saying, ‘You know what, this is right,’ or ‘This is wrong and you need to do better.’ And we don’t take kindly … to having people try (to) punish us for believing what we say.”
That appeared to be a direct reference to Saudi Arabia, which lashed out at Canada — recalling its ambassador, freezing trade, pulling students out of Canadian schools and even cancelling flights to Toronto — after a tweet from Freeland calling for the immediate release of detained activists, including Samar Badawi, a champion of women’s rights and the sister of detained blogger Raif Badawi.
The kingdom flexed its rhetorical muscles Sunday, saying that if it “receives any action, it will respond with greater action, and that the kingdom’s economy has an influential and vital role in the global economy.”
In the U.S., the Post has been publishing full-page ads in its front section in an effort to keep the pressure up.
“On Tuesday, Oct. 2 at 1:14 p.m. Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi entered the Consulate of Saudi Arabia in Istanbul,” reads the ad, which features an ominous-looking depiction of the consulate’s imposing double doors, adorned with the twin swords of the kingdom’s emblem.
“He has not been seen since. Demand answers.”
International business leaders have also been bailing en masse out of the kingdom’s glittering big-ticket investment forum, the Future Investment Initiative, including the CEO of Uber, billionaire Richard Branson, JPMorgan Chase & Co. CEO Jamie Dimon and Ford executive chairman Bill Ford.