Secretary of State Mike Pompeo arrived in Saudi Arabia on Tuesday to meet with King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. On the table was the disappearance and death of Saudi journalist and U.S. resident Jamal Khashoggi, whom Turkish officials last week claimed was murdered and dismembered in Istanbul at the direction of the Saudi royal court. (Disclosure: Penske Media Corporation, which owns Rolling Stone and several other publications, reportedly received a financial investment from a Saudi Arabia investment fund earlier this year.)
Pompeo and the Saudi rulers were all smiles during their sitdown.
“The Secretary thanked the King for Saudi Arabia’s strong partnership with the United States,” a statement released by the State Department read. “The Secretary and the King discussed a number of regional and bilateral issues. The Secretary also thanked the King for his commitment to supporting a thorough, transparent and timely investigation of Jamal Khashoggi’s disappearance.”
Saudi Arabia has yet to publicly admit any knowledge of the events surroudning Khashoggi’s final days. On Tuesday morning, Turkish officials told the Associated Press that they have found evidence he was killed in the Saudi Arabian consulate in Intanbul, as had been reported.
BREAKING: Turkish official tells AP police found evidence in Saudi Consulate that Saudi writer Jamal Khashoggi was killed there.
— The Associated Press (@AP) October 16, 2018
Khashoggi went missing after security cameras showed him entering the consulate on October 2nd. Turkish authorities claimed last week that the journalist, who had been critical of the Saudi regime, was lured into the consulate by Saudi agents, who then killed him, dismembered his body with a bone saw and transported the remains out of the consulate in bags. Turkish officials, who say they possess audio and video of the assassination, allege that the order to kill Khashoggi came from the highest levels of the Saudi royal court. Though Saudi officials claim that Khashoggi left the consulate soon after he arrived, Khashoggi’s fiancée, who had been waiting outside, says he never emerged, a claim corroborated by the lack of security footage of his departure.
The Saudi government has vehemently denied any wrongdoing, although it has been reported that they are preparing to acknowledge Khashoggi was killed as part of a botched interrogation, contradicting their initial claim that he left the consulate shortly after arriving. It’s not clear how a bone saw would have factored into an interrogation of a dissident journalist. On Tuesday, Saudi Arabia allowed Turkish investigators to search the consulate.
Journalists at Saudi consulate in Istanbul spotting cleaners coming into building just before Turkish investigators are scheduled to arrive to probe Jamal Khashoggi disappearance (via APTN feed) pic.twitter.com/iAAjM0PpGu
— Borzou Daragahi 🖊🗒 (@borzou) October 15, 2018
Saudi Arabia has been widely condemned for its allege role in Khashoggi’s disappearance. Several high-profile companies and individuals scheduled to attend the Davos investment conference in Riyadh later this month have withdrawn. Many have called for the Trump administration to impose sanctions on Saudi Arabia, or at least to cease supplying the kingdom with arms. President Trump said last week that he doesn’t consider the latter an option. “As to whether we should stop $110 billion from being spent in this country, knowing that they have four or five alternatives, that would not be acceptable to me,” he said.
Trump also made sure to clarify that “this took place in Turkey” and that Khashoggi “is not a United States citizen.” The president added that he doesn’t like the situation “even a little bit.”
Trump: This thing happened in Turkey and Khashoggi isn't even a US citizen. pic.twitter.com/3poTLR22jN
— Josh Marshall (@joshtpm) October 11, 2018
On Monday, Trump wrote on Twitter that he had spoken to Saudi Arabian King Salman, and that the ruler “denies any knowledge of whatever may have happened” to Khashoggi. He continued to cast doubt on Saudi Arabia’s involvement while speaking to reporters in front of the White House prior to leaving to survey the damage caused by Hurricane Michael. “I just spoke with the king of Saudi Arabia, who denies any knowledge of what took place with regard to, as he said, his Saudi Arabia citizen,” Trump said. “He firmly denies that.”
“The king firmly denied any knowledge of it,” Trump said again. “He didn’t really know… I don’t want to get into his mind, but 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, but his was a flat denial.”
Pres. Trump says King Salman "firmly denies any knowledge" of "what took place" with regards to journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
— ABC News (@ABC) October 15, 2018
If Trump’s deferrals to the word of an autocratic ruler sound familiar, it’s because they are almost identical to the comments he made after Vladimir Putin denied interfering in the 2016 election. Many still wonder what exactly prompted the president to defer to the duplicitous, authoritarian leader of one of America’s greatest adversaries over the consensus of the U.S. intelligence community. It’s a little easier to surmise why the president feels it is necessary to maintain a healthy relationship with Saudi Arabia. As is often the case regarding the more dubious dealings of the Trump administration, it likely comes down to money.
Trump has had extensive business ties with Saudi Arabia, beginning in the ’90s and extending well into his presidential administration. The Saudis have paid millions to Trump for everything from a yacht to apartments, and their government has pumped hundreds of thousands of dollars into Trump’s hotels since he took office. The conflict of interest is staggering considering the president’s refusal to divest his interests in the Trump Organization. “Other countries in the Middle East see what is happening and may think, ‘We should be opening golf courses’ or ‘We should be buying rooms at the Trump International,’” Brian Egan, a former legal adviser to Obama’s State Department, told the New York Times. “Even if there is no nefarious intent on behalf of the president or the Trumps, for a president to be making money from business holdings in sensitive places around the world is likely to have an impact.”
On Tuesday morning, Trump denied having any financial interests “in” Saudi Arabia.
For the record, I have no financial interests in Saudi Arabia (or Russia, for that matter). Any suggestion that I have is just more FAKE NEWS (of which there is plenty)!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 16, 2018
As CNN’s Abby Phillips points out on Twitter, not having financial interests “in” Saudi Arabia does not mean the president does not have a financial relationship with the kingdom. “Saudi Arabia, I get along with all of them,” Trump said in 2015. “They buy apartments from me. They spend $40 million, $50 million. Am I supposed to dislike them? I like them very much.”