Published 9:33 PM EDT Oct 23, 2018
WASHINGTON – In a notable shift, President Donald Trump blasted Saudi Arabia on Tuesday for its handling of the death of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and his administration announced the first penalties against some of those involved.
“The cover-up was the worst in the history of cover-ups," Trump told reporters at the White House.
Trump's comments marked another reversal from his initial statement that he found the Saudi government's explanation of Khashoggi's death to be credible.
Just moments after Trump spoke, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the administration had identified some of the Saudis involved in Khashoggi's death, "including those in the intelligence services, the Royal Court, the foreign ministry, and other Saudi ministries."
Pompeo said the administration would revoke their visas and was reviewing possible sanctions against those individuals. He did not name any of the alleged culprits or say how many U.S. visas would be in jeopardy.
"We’re making very clear that the United States does not tolerate this kind of ruthless action to silence Mr. Khashoggi, a journalist, through violence," Pompeo said. "Neither the president nor I am happy with this situation."
Pompeo said the administration would take additional steps once it had more information on who was involved.
"These penalties will not be the last word on this matter from the United States," he said. "We will continue to do our own fact-finding" and make sure any consequences are based on "real data."
Saudi authorities claimed last Friday that Jamal Khashoggi died during a “brawl” inside the country’s consulate in Istanbul, a sharp reversal from previous assertions by the regime that the dissident journalist had left the diplomatic facility unharmed on Oct. 2. Turkish officials have said Khashoggi was brutally murdered inside the consulate in a pre-meditated operation.
Khashoggi went into the consulate for some routine paperwork. He was living in the U.S. self-imposed exile amid fears for his safety after he became increasingly critical of the Saudi government.
In an unusual move, CIA Director Gina Haspel was dispatched to Turkey earlier this week amid that country's ongoing investigation into Khashoggi's death. The CIA declined to comment on Haspel's trip, and neither Pompeo nor Trump addressed her role in the case.
But Trump said Tuesday he would be meeting Wednesday with U.S. officials returning from overseas with more information.
In previous comments on Khasoggi's death, Trump and Pompeo both touted the long-standing U.S. alliance with Saudi Arabia, seeming to cast their remarks about the U.S. resident and Washington Post columnist in terms that would not alienate the Saudi ruling family.
Tuesday's change in tone came on the heels of a blistering speech by Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who said his government had amassed evidence that clearly showed The Washington Post columnist was killed in a premeditated and "savage" murder that involved at least three separate teams of Saudi intelligence agents, including a military general.
Erdogan was speaking to parliament as part of his pledge to unveil the "naked truth" about a case that has shocked the world and raised suspicions that a Saudi hit squad planned Khashoggi’s killing after he walked into the consulate on Oct. 2, and then attempted to cover it up.
While Trump said he was concerned about Erdogan's comments, he said he still wants all the facts before making a final decision on whether and how to punish the Saudis. He also said he would work with Congress on any response.
“In terms of what we ultimately do … I’m going to leave it up to Congress,” Trump said, adding he hopes a decision will be bipartisan.
“They had a very bad original concept, it was carried out poorly and the cover-up was the worst in the history of cover-ups,” he said. “They had the worst cover-up ever.”
As for the apparent plan to murder Khashoggi, Trump said: "Whoever thought of that idea I think is in big trouble, and they should be in big trouble."
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