Washington: US President Donald Trump has condemned Saudi Arabia’s account of the killing of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi as “the worst cover up ever” as his administration took its first concrete step to penalize Saudi Arabia, revoking visas for its agents suspected in the killing.
Speaking in the Oval Office on Tuesday, Trump skewered the Saudis, saying: “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.”
“In terms of what we ultimately do, I’m going to leave it very much – in conjunction with me – I’m going to leave it up to Congress.”
His comments came after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the journalist was the victim of a carefully planned “political murder” by Saudi intelligence officers and other officials.
Later, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Washington would “punish those responsible” and had revoked the visas of 21 identified suspects, CNN reported.
“We have identified at least some of the individuals responsible, including those in the intelligence services, the Royal Court, the Foreign Ministry, and other Saudi ministries who we suspect to have a hand in the killing,” Pompeo told the media on Tuesday.
The top US diplomat said that the State Department was also working with the Treasury Department to apply human rights-related sanctions that included the freezing of assets and a travel ban.
The Saudi government has provided conflicting accounts of what happened to Khashoggi, a Washington Post contributor and a fierce critic of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman’s policies.
He disappeared after entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2 for paperwork needed for his planned wedding.
After weeks of maintaining he was still alive, senior officials later said that the 59-year-old was murdered in a rogue operation after visiting the Saudi consulate in Turkey.
Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said on Sunday that Khashoggi’s death was a “tremendous mistake” and added that his government would punish those responsible for his “murder”.
Trump, however, seemed less willing to accept that official explanation, calling it a “lousy attempt at concealing a crime”.
“Somebody really messed up… Because whoever thought of that idea, I think is in big trouble. And they should be in big trouble.”
He said he was expecting to hear more from US intelligence officials during a meeting on Wednesday.
Trump, however, reiterated that he was not inclined to restrict arms sales to Saudi Arabia because “Russia, China and France” will quickly take advantage of the opportunity to sell their own weapons to Riyadh if the US refuses to do so.
“We’re making very clear that the US does not tolerate this ruthless action to silence Khashoggi… through violence,” he said, adding — however — that Washington will continue pursuing its strategic objectives with Saudi Arabia.
The New York Times reported that the journalist was killed within minutes after his entering the Saudi office. Sky News, a UK-based broadcaster, said that his dismembered body parts were recovered from the Saudi consul general’s home.