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The Trump Administration's Evolving Reaction To Jamal Khashoggi Disappearance


Jamal Khashoggi is probably dead. President Trump acknowledged that reality last night. The question now is what he and his administration will do about it. It's been 17 days since the Saudi journalist, U.S. resident and Washington Post columnist walked into the Saudi consulate in Istanbul and disappeared.

We're going to spend these next few minutes tracing the reaction from Trump and his national security team - how it has swung from condemnation to a rogue killer theory to withholding judgment, at least for now. We've got NPR diplomatic correspondent Michele Kelemen here to take us behind the scenes on this shifting U.S. position. Michele was on the plane this week to Riyadh and Ankara with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Hey, Michele.


KELLY: Welcome home.

KELEMEN: Thank you.

KELLY: I think we're all familiar with how the story starts by now.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Now The Washington Post says one of its contributors, a prominent Saudi journalist and vocal critic of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, is missing.

KELLY: Khashoggi is photographed walking into the Saudi consulate. That was October 2, and nobody's seen him since. When did the Trump administration first officially weigh in and comment on this?

KELEMEN: Well, it was via Twitter, as per usual. October 8, Trump writes, there's some pretty bad stories going around. I do not like it. A few days later, he's in the Oval Office.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: This is a bad situation. We cannot let this happen - to reporters, to anybody. We can't let this happen.

KELEMEN: Vowing to get to the bottom of this story but also making clear that he does not want to upend very lucrative arms deals with the Saudis.


TRUMP: But as to whether or not we should stop $110 billion from being spent in this country, knowing they have four or five alternatives - two very good alternatives, that would not be acceptable to me.

KELLY: All right, fast-forward to this week. By now, there is mounting pressure from Congress to get to the bottom of this and take a really firm stand against Saudi Arabia. There is information flooding out from Turkey - all kinds of gruesome details about the killing and dismemberment allegedly of Khashoggi. And meanwhile...


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: So Secretary of State Pompeo is on his way to Riyadh within the hour. We expect...

KELLY: President Trump decides, I'm going to send my secretary of state to the region. You found out about this - I know because Monday morning you sent a quick email to the newsroom saying, I just found out I got a seat on the plane. I'm running. Was it clear, as you all were setting out from Joint Base Andrews, what Pompeo's was mission was - what he was being sent to do?

KELEMEN: Mostly just to have face-to-face conversations with the Saudis about this - and he got the call only Sunday night. So it was a very last-minute deal. But he was - avoided us pretty much the whole flight over. All we had was a brief conversation with his spokesperson Heather Nauert, who said that we should understand this to be an urgent matter because the president sent him here.

KELLY: All right, so you all land in Riyadh. And was there a sense of urgency?

KELEMEN: I didn't feel it, for sure. I mean, I got off the plane, pulled my microphone out, and there was the foreign minister Adel al-Jubeir chit-chatting on the tarmac with Mike Pompeo about the flight over.

MIKE POMPEO: Yeah, the weather was all good. We got off on time.

KELEMEN: The usual business.

KELLY: Now meanwhile, while you, the secretary of state and his whole delegation are in Saudi Arabia, here in Washington President Trump floats the idea of rogue killers.


TRUMP: It sounded to me like maybe this could have been rogue killers. Who knows? We're going to try getting to the bottom of it very soon.

KELLY: No evidence presented to support this theory - were you and other reporters on the plane able to ask Pompeo what's going on with this?

KELEMEN: He kept his distance from us the whole day when he was having these meetings. And it was only after he had met with Mohammed bin Salman, the young crown prince who's really kind of the power broker in Saudi Arabia. President Trump called into this meeting, and President Trump was the first to tweet.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: Breaking right now, Donald Trump tweeting just moments ago, just spoke with the crown prince of Saudi Arabia who totally denied any knowledge of what took place in the Turkish consulate. He was with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

KELEMEN: And then the State Department had to put out a statement confirming that Trump had called in and that the crown prince had in fact denied that he had any knowledge of this and that the king denied as well.

KELLY: Trump then moved on. This is back here in Washington again. He gave an interview to the AP on Tuesday in which he compared the allegations against MBS, Mohammed bin Salman, to allegations against his Supreme Court nominee - now Supreme Court justice - Brett Kavanaugh.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #4: The president saying here in an interview with The Associated Press, quote, "here we go again with you're guilty until proven innocent."

KELLY: Michele Kelemen, you by now - you've left Riyadh. You've flown on to Turkey, where, of course, Jamal Khashoggi has disappeared. Turkish investigators are presenting all kinds of evidence. Does Mike Pompeo say he's found anything out - he's found any facts at this point?

KELEMEN: No. And in fact, it was astounding because we - it was as we were leaving Riyadh, we asked him point-blank, did the Saudis tell you that this Washington Post columnist was dead?

KELLY: Yeah, what they'd say?

KELEMEN: He said...

POMPEO: I don't want to talk about any of the facts. They didn't want to either - and that they want to have the opportunity to complete this investigation in a thorough way.

KELEMEN: And he called that an incredible success.

KELLY: I'm guessing there were some follow-up questions among the press corps on the flight home as you all are headed back. You flew back Wednesday, from Ankara back to Washington, after this mission that was not to find out the facts of what happened. You land. And then the next thing we hear from the administration is we need to give the Saudis more time.

KELEMEN: That's right. And he did say that on the trip as well because we asked him about the optics of this - that it looked like business as usual with the Saudis. And he insisted that he had very direct conversations, that they were serious. But he also went into this long kind of unprompted defense of the relationship.

POMPEO: I do think it's important that everyone keep in their mind that we have lots of important relationships - financial relationships between U.S. and Saudi companies, governmental relationships, things we work on together all across the world.

KELEMEN: And particularly now as this administration is trying to reimpose sanctions on Iran, they need the Saudis to maintain the oil markets. They need the Turks to stop buying so much crude oil from Iran. So there's a lot of geopolitics here at play in this one particular case.

KELLY: So here we sit, close of business on Friday, 17 days after Jamal Khashoggi walked into that Saudi Consulate in Istanbul and disappeared. Are we any closer to answers on the two key questions - what happened, and what is the U.S. going to do about it?

KELEMEN: Not really. I mean, there is a move in Congress to push for at least some targeted sanctions against those people who are found to have been involved in this. And the administration has to respond to that. President Trump has said the consequences are going to be serious.


TRUMP: Well, it will have to be very severe. I mean, it's bad, bad stuff. But we'll see what happens. Thank you.

KELEMEN: They want to give the Saudis a few more days to come up with their story. And in the meantime, the Turks have been leaking all kinds of information and very gruesome details about this case.

KELLY: NPR's Michele Kelemen, thank you.

KELEMEN: Thank you.

KELLY: And the last word on this story for now - talking to reporters today, Trump pointed out Congress will have a role in the U.S. response to Khashoggi's disappearance. He also pointed out that Saudi investment creates jobs in many of their states. And he added, quote, "I hope we don't lose track of that."

(CLAUDIO COLOMBO'S "SUITE NO. 1 IN C MAJOR") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: October 21, 2018 at 12:00 AM EDT
A previous version of this story misspelled administration in the headline as "aministration."
Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.

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