Dispatched to Saudi Arabia on a last-minute trip, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met Tuesday with the kingdom’s top leaders to press them on the disappearance of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.
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In photo ops with King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Pompeo smiled and greeted them warmly, even as the Saudis weigh whether to accept culpability for Khashoggi’s death, a source with knowledge of their discussions told ABC News.
It was unclear what explanation they would give or when that statement would come, but Turkey has said they believe Khashoggi was killed in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
The Saudis have fiercely denied that charge, with the Trump administration urging caution until an investigation can take place.
The Saudis said Khashoggi left the consulate and disappeared later, but there’s no evidence that he ever exited the compound after entering 14 days ago.
President Trump sent Pompeo to learn what happened to Khashoggi, an issue “of great interest to the President,” according to State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert.
“The Secretary has made that clear in each of his meetings today,” she added, calling those meetings “both direct and candid.”
In his first meeting with King Salman, Pompeo had words of thanks, Nauert said, for Saudi’s “strong partnership” and “his commitment to supporting a thorough, transparent, and timely investigation.” The importance of that investigation was something Pompeo and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman also agreed on, Nauert said.
But it’s the crown prince or “MBS”, as he is sometimes known, that members of Congress and other U.S. officials worry ordered the plot against Khashoggi.
Painted as a bright, young reformer who has opened up Saudi Arabia to movie theaters, sporting events, and women driving, the crown prince has also overseen a crackdown on political opposition, including by arresting several wealthy Saudi princes, and activists, including women’s rights advocates.
Media reporting of his alleged involvement in Khashoggi’s disappearance and possible death has strengthened that darker image of a ruthless young leader.
“I’m not going back to Saudi Arabia as long as this guy’s in charge,” said Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a staunch supporter of U.S.-Saudi relations. “This guy is a wrecking ball. He had this guy murdered in a consulate in Turkey, and to expect me to ignore it – I feel used and abused.”
“I’m going to sanction the hell out of Saudi Arabia. You know, we deal with bad people all the time, but this is in our face. I feel personally offended. They have nothing but contempt for us,” Graham told Fox News Tuesday, adding the crown prince “has got to go.”
That kind of language was once unheard of from a senior Republican official, especially one as steeped in foreign policy.
The tone from Pompeo’s trip was noticeably different. He smiled and shook hands with King Salman and the crown prince, with whom he joked about jetlag.
“We are really strong and old allies, so we face our challenges together — the past, the day of, tomorrow,” MBS told Pompeo, who nodded along and responded, “Absolutely.”
Pompeo’s meetings all lasted around 30 minutes, but this evening he’ll have dinner with the crown prince, which is expected to be a longer affair.
The U.S. had also welcomed Turkey and Saudi Arabia announcing a “joint inspection” of the consulate, and the first Turkish police officials were able to enter the compound Monday.
So far the investigation has not yielded any publicly released results, but an official told ABC News on Monday that the Saudis are considering whether to claim involvement.
The U.S. has declined to comment on that possibility.
Turkish authorities will also search the residence of the top Saudi diplomat in Istanbul, the consul general, a Foreign Ministry official told the Associated Press Tuesday.
Trump said Pompeo may head to Turkey after his visit to Saudi Arabia.