US hardens line on Saudi Arabia as Khashoggi evidence mounts

The US moved closer to acknowledging the role of Saudi Arabia in journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s apparent death as new details emerged linking his disappearance to people close to the kingdom’s crown prince.

On Thursday President Donald Trump said for the first time that he believes Khashoggi is no longer alive, more than two weeks after the Washington Post columnist entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, never to be seen again.

“It certainly looks that way to me, it’s very sad,” the president said when asked if Khashoggi is dead.

Questioned about consequences for Saudi Arabia if it is found to be involved in his killing, Trump said: “Well it’ll have to be severe, I mean it’s bad, bad stuff. We’ll see what happens. OK?”

They were Trump’s strongest comments so far on the case.

The Trump administration has staked much of its policy agenda in the Middle East on a strong US-Saudi relationship, with the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner forging a close personal relationship with Crown Prince Mohammed.

However, on Thursday, Saudi Arabia felt the first repercussions from the US over Khashoggi’s apparent death, with Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin pulling out of a planned appearance at a Saudi investment conference next week. An administration official said no US officials would attend the conference in his stead.

But the White House was careful not to offer definitive assessment of the situation, preferring instead to wait for Saudi Arabia to come out with its version of events.

Liam Fox, the UK trade secretary, and the French finance minister, Bruno Le Maire, and his Dutch counterpart, Wopke Hoekstra, also pulled out of the conference.

The CEOs of three top banks had already announced their withdrawal. International Monetary Fund chief Christine Lagarde has also canceled her attendance. The G7 foreign ministers on Tuesday called for those responsible to be held accountable.

Bipartisan groups of US lawmakers have begun to back international demands for an independent investigation into Khashoggi’s disappearance and are calling on Trump, who has touted the crown prince’s “total denial” of any involvement, to reveal his personal financial ties to Saudi Arabia.

Trump’s loyalty to Riyadh has become increasingly difficult to justify as evidence has mounted linking Khashoggi’s death to people with ties to the highest levels of the Saudi government.

Several US officials have told CNN that any operation involving members of the crown prince’s inner circle could not have happened without his direct knowledge.

Saudi officials had previously maintained Khashoggi left the consulate the same afternoon of his visit, but they provided no evidence to support the claim.

Sources have told CNN that the kingdom was preparing a report to acknowledge that Khashoggi died at the consulate in an interrogation that went awry. The sources said the interrogation was intended to lead to his enforced return to Saudi Arabia.

One source said the report will likely conclude that the operation was carried out without clearance and transparency and that those involved will be held responsible.

However, any Saudi assertion that Khashoggi died in a botched interrogation and abduction mission conducted by rogue agents would be contradicted by increasing evidence leaked by Turkish officials.