After weeks of obfuscation and changing narratives, Saudi Arabia claimed that journalist Jamal Khashoggi died in a fistfight in the Saudi Consulate and said it had arrested 18 people in connection with his death. President Donald Trump told reporters he believed their explanation during a media availability at Luke Air Force base in Arizona Friday.
“I think it’s a good first step. It’s a big step. It’s a lot of people,” Trump said. “A lot of people involved, and I think it’s a great first step.”
The Saudi government said it arrested 18 Saudi citizens suspected of being involved with Khashoggi’s death, although the government refused to release their names. Officials also said they dismissed Deputy Director of Saudi Intelligence Ahmed al-Assiri. (Disclosure: Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund has reportedly invested $200 million in Penske Media Corp., Rolling Stone’s parent company.)
The Saudi government’s explanation, however, contradicts what the Turkish government’s investigation into Khashoggi’s death has found. Turkish officials claimed to have an audio recording of the interrogation that led to Khashoggi’s death, recorded by Khashoggi’s Apple Watch, and CIA officials have listened to it, the Washington Post reported. Bruce Riedel, a Saudi Arabia expert and 30-year CIA veteran told the Post, “This is the worst coverup I’ve ever seen.”
The Post also released on Saturday a previously unpublished recording of Khashoggi speaking about Saudia Arabia and freedom.
“We’ll find out what happened to the body before long,” a senior Turkish official told Reuters on Saturday. “The DNA is being procured from within Turkey. It seems there will be no need to ask Saudi Arabia at the moment.”
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle were quick to condemn the Saudi explanation and acceptance from Trump. Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), appearing on CNN Friday evening, said, “The Saudis very clearly seem to be buying time and buying cover, but this action raises more questions than it answers. There has to be an international investigation. It has to be done with legitimate and credible means involving the United States, and it has to use those tapes, the surveillance that evidently the Turks have.”
A Turkish news outlet released surveillance images that showed Maher Abdulaziz Mutreb, a close contact of Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, entering the consulate in Istanbul where Khashoggi was allegedly killed, potentially connecting crown prince Mohammed bin Salman to the death. American intelligence officials have said it was “inconceivable” that bin Salman was not involved.
Republican Senators Rand Paul (R-KY) and Bob Corker (R-TN) also expressed skepticism. Paul said the Saudi story was “not even close to credible,” and Corker threatened sanctions.
The so-called “explanation” from the Saudis is not even close to credible. What they did was unacceptable and I call on my colleagues in Congress to join me in denouncing their behavior and changing how we treat them.
— Senator Rand Paul (@RandPaul) October 20, 2018
“Congress is very interested in this one, and we’ll be working with Congress,” Trump told reporters Friday. “But I would prefer, if there’s going to be some form of sanction or what we may determine to do, if anything, because this was a lot of people they’re talking about — people pretty high up — but I would prefer that we don’t use as retribution canceling $110 billion worth of work, which means 600,000 jobs.”
Other world leaders, meanwhile, expressed their doubt. German Chancellor Angela Merkel said that she does not accept the Saudi story, as did Danish Prime Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen, Bloomberg reported.