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Changing Saudi story on Khashoggi rattles allies

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman
Published Oct. 21, 2018

WASHINGTON — Saudi Arabia's revised account of the death of journalist Jamal Khashoggi left the U.S. and other allies struggling for a response Sunday.

According to the latest Saudi account, "discussions" of Khashoggi's status turned violent at the consulate on Oct. 2, and he died after being placed in a chokehold.

That conflicts with reports from Turkish officials, who say a Saudi hit team flew in specifically to kill and dismember him. It also conflicts with previous Saudi claims that the columnist left the building alive. According to a New York Times report, some members of the alleged hit team had close ties to the crown prince.

On Sunday, in an interview with Fox News, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said, "There obviously was a tremendous mistake made, and what compounded the mistake would be the attempt to try to cover up."

Asked if he had a message for Khashoggi's relatives, Jubeir said: "This is a terrible mistake. This is a terrible tragedy. Our condolences go out to them. We feel their pain."

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, turning up the pressure on Saudi Arabia, promised Sunday to reveal everything his country knows.

Turkish officials have suggested that Khashoggi's death was ordered at the highest levels of the kingdom. And Erdogan, who has commented little on the matter publicly, on Sunday indicated that he has more to say about what happened.

"We are searching for justice and it will be revealed in full nakedness," Erdogan said Sunday afternoon. "God willing, I will make my statement about Jamal Khashoggi in the parliamentary group on Tuesday."

In Sunday radio and TV interviews, Dominica Raab, the British politician in charge of negotiating Britain's exit from the European Union, described the latest Saudi account as not credible; French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire called for "the truth"; and Germany's Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said his government would approve no arms sales as long as the investigation continues. Saudi Arabia is an important market for all three countries.

In an interview with the Washington Post, President Donald Trump, too, said the Saudi narrative had been marked by "deception and lies" and that "their stories are all over the place."

But Trump also defended Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman as a "strong person," and said there was no proof of his involvement in Khashoggi's death: "Nobody has told me he's responsible. Nobody has told me he's not responsible. We haven't reached that point. I haven't heard either way."

Lawmakers from both parties, several of whom had been briefed on the U.S. intelligence, immediately rejected the latest Saudi account as lacking credibility. Allies of Trump like Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., expressed some of the most scathing criticism.

Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., who leads the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and other Republicans were less equivocal Sunday. Corker said that while he was waiting for the conclusions of U.S. intelligence agencies before making a final judgment, he believed that the prince was behind the killing.

"They've lost all credibility as it relates to explaining what has happened," he said on CNN's State of the Union. "I can understand the president wanting to keep open channels, but I think those of us who want to speak directly to this know that it's just not credible."

Others made clear that they want to see Saudi Arabia punished, though any action will have to wait until Congress returns after the midterm elections next month. Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., suggested that the United States consider ending arms sales to the Saudis, while Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., said the Trump administration should consider pressing for the removal of the crown prince if it could be proved that he was behind the killing.

Behind the rhetoric are difficult choices the U.S. and other governments will have to make, between long-standing economic and defense ties to the kingdom and concern that not imposing consequences for the killing would give a green light for authoritarian regimes to kill inconvenient journalists and opponents worldwide.

"We have a long-standing relationship with Saudi that dates back to a long period of time," Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in Jerusalem, the first stop on a six-country Middle East trip that will include a visit to Riyadh. "We will continue in that relationship while we also simultaneously get to the bottom of what the facts are about the Khashoggi situation, which obviously is a terrible situation."

Bloomberg News and the New York Times contributed to this story.