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Trump, Pompeo defend Saudi rulers as White House strategy shifts in Khashoggi case

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WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump and Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo expressed confidence Wednesday that the Saudi government could be trusted to investigate the disappearance and suspected murder of a Virginia-based Saudi journalist in Turkey — despite the likelihood that senior Saudi officials were involved.
The double-barreled defense of the Saudi rulers signaled a shift in White House strategy and suggested the administration has decided to help its most important ally in the Arab world defuse international outrage over the fate of Jamal Khashoggi, who was a U.S. resident.
But pressure on Saudi Arabia intensified as Yeni Safak, a pro-government daily newspaper in Turkey, said it had obtained audiotapes that provided grisly new details of Khashoggi's apparent torture and killing inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2.
The paper said that the dissident Saudi journalist was seized as soon as he entered, drugged with an unknown substance and tortured before he was killed. His fingers were cut off during questioning and he was decapitated, the paper reported. It said he was killed in seven minutes.
The Saudi consul general, Mohammad Otaibi, could be heard telling Saudi operatives sent to Istanbul that day, "Do this outside. You're going to get me in trouble," the paper reported. Otaibi abruptly left Istanbul for the Saudi capital, Riyadh, on Tuesday.
Turkish police investigators, forensic experts and prosecutors searched the Saudi consul general's residence for evidence on Wednesday afternoon. The inspection had been expected Tuesday, but authorities waited until the diplomat's family had flown out of the country, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told reporters.
Turkish officials already have searched the Saudi Consulate, but did not disclose the results of their findings.
Speaking in the Oval Office, Trump said U.S. authorities had asked for the tape of Khashoggi's killing, suggesting Turkish officials haven't yet shared it.
"I'm not sure yet that it exists. Probably does. Possibly does," Trump said. He said it would be "the first question" he would ask Pompeo when he returns early Thursday from two days of emergency talks in Riyadh and the Turkish capital, Ankara, that focused on the Khashoggi case.
Pompeo told reporters during a refueling stop in Brussels that his meetings with Saudi King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman had focused in part on the allegations of an extrajudicial killing in their consulate.
"We had very direct conversations about this, the seriousness of this, how serious President Trump is taking this, how seriously the United States will take this," he said.
Pompeo said the Saudis pledged to conduct a "thorough, complete and transparent" investigation and would "show the entire world" the results.
"They made a commitment, too, to hold anyone connected to any wrongdoing that may be found accountable ... whether they are a senior officer or official," he said. He added, "It's reasonable to give them a handful of days more to complete it so they get it right, so that it's thorough and complete."
He declined to say if he had asked for or had heard the alleged torture tape, but said he had spoken to Khashoggi's Turkish fiancee, Hatice Cengiz. Asked whether he believed the Saudi rulers' repeated denial of complicity, Pompeo said he was reserving judgment.
Saudi Arabia is far less popular in Congress than in the White House, and a weak U.S. response will not sit well with many lawmakers, nor with the political and foreign policy establishment, who have denounced Saudi Arabia and the Trump administration's handling of the case.
"Really, the president of the United States should be a leader," House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., told reporters in Coral Gables, Fla. "He should not be a person who makes excuses for countries just because of a financial deal, personal or official. ... This strikes to the heart of our democracy, it undermines our values as we are viewed in the rest of the world and, quite frankly, if it weren't so serious, I would say it looked silly."
Khashoggi, who was 59 when he disappeared, was a U.S.-educated journalist who covered major international stories, including the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the subsequent rise of Osama bin Laden, whom he briefly befriended, for Saudi news organizations. He later served as an adviser to and spokesman for top Saudi officials, including their ambassador in Washington.
He fell out of favor with the government after the crown prince consolidated his grip on power over the last two years with mass arrests of rivals and critics, holding some hostage until they reportedly handed over vast fortunes. Khashoggi went into self-imposed exile last year in a bedroom suburb of Washington, D.C., and wrote a monthly opinion column in The Washington Post in which he criticized the crackdown.
He first visited the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul on Sept. 28 to obtain a document certifying he had divorced his ex-wife so he could remarry. He made an appointment to pick up the paperwork at 1:30 on the afternoon of Oct. 2, while his fiancee waited outside.
He reportedly gave her his two cellphones and told her to call an adviser to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan — a personal friend — if he did not emerge. Saudi officials said he left the consulate within two hours, but have offered no explanation as to how he disappeared.
Neither Trump nor Pompeo offered any new facts or insights in the case Wednesday. But unless authorities recover his body or other conclusive evidence of his death, the mystery may remain unsolved.
Pompeo urged Americans to be mindful of the extensive energy, economic and security ties between Riyadh and Washington, including efforts against what he called the world's largest supporter of terrorism, Iran, Saudi Arabia's traditional rival in the region.
"The Saudis have been great partners in working alongside us on these issues," Pompeo said in Ankara. "We need to make sure we are mindful of that as we approach decisions" on whether to impose sanctions or take other punitive steps against Riyadh, as many in Congress and elsewhere have urged.
While Pompeo was in Riyadh, the Saudi government made good on a long-promised pledge and paid $100 million to the U.S. to assist in the rebuilding of war-ravaged Syria, U.S. officials said. The officials called the timing coincidental.
Few experts believe the Saudis will have to expend much capital to buy their way out of the crisis, primarily because of Trump's good favor.
"Trump, if you are on his side, is going to defend you," said Daniel Byman, a former CIA analyst specializing in the Middle East who is now an associate dean at Georgetown University.
"He sees the Saudis as his friends," Byman said. "This is not a moment when the administration is saying, 'No. Roll back. Make these concessions.' He is defending his supporters as part of a broader strategic relationship — for better or worse."
Some experts suggested the Saudis may make nominal gestures, such as more talk of reform in the repressive desert kingdom, or an overture to Israel, an official enemy.
In that view, Khashoggi may be a casualty of harsh political realities. Saudi Arabia lies at the center of Washington's strategic and political engagement with the region. The Trump administration's enmity for Iran and its allies, including Hezbollah in Lebanon and Syrian President Bashar Assad, dovetails with Riyadh's goals to limit Tehran's influence.
The administration has turned to Saudi Arabia to lead — and finance — its anti-Iran drive in the region, while Riyadh relies on U.S. weapons and logistical support to pursue an increasingly unpopular war in Yemen against Iran-backed Houthi rebels.
The Saudi government is reported to have pressured the Palestinians, and countries with large numbers of Palestinian refugees, including Jordan and Lebanon, into considering a Middle East peace plan that was crafted by Trump's son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, and is still under wraps. The White House clearly would like to see what Trump has called "the ultimate deal" succeed, and would value Saudi support.
The response in the Middle East to the Khashoggi incident has largely reflected where each country sits in the conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran. At least nine countries arrayed around the Persian Gulf closed ranks behind Saudi Arabia, although some say an investigation is required.
Saudi leaders for nearly two weeks denied knowing anything about Khashoggi's disappearance. On Monday, they began floating a scenario _ initially adopted by Trump — that blamed the death inside the consulate on "rogue killers," and then suggested the journalist was accidentally killed during an interrogation that went awry.
On Tuesday, Trump offered more support for Riyadh, saying the Saudis were innocent until proven guilty and comparing the Khashoggi case to the allegations of sexual misconduct that nearly derailed the Senate confirmation of new Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh.
Analysts familiar with the desert kingdom said it was likely that Saudi leaders were hoping the scandal would blow over and that they could wait it out.
"We received commitments that they would complete this (investigation), and I am counting on them to do that," Pompeo said. "They gave me their word."

(Wilkinson reported from Washington and Bulos reported from Beirut. Times staff writers Mark Z. Barabak in Coral Gables and Jennifer Haberkorn in Washington contributed to this report.)

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