Trump criticizes rush to condemn Saudi Arabia over Khashoggi

Trump criticizes rush to condemn Saudi Arabia over Khashoggi
President Donald Trump speaks during an interview with The Associated Press in the Oval Office of the White House, Tuesday, Oct. 16, 2018, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci) (Evan Vucci)

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump on Tuesday criticized rapidly mounting global condemnation of Saudi Arabia over the mystery of missing journalist Jamal Khashoggi, warning of a rush to judgment and echoing the Saudis' request for patience.

On Wednesday. he said that the U.S. has asked for the purported audio of Khashoggi’s murder: “We have asked for it, if it exists. We have asked.”

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The president on Wednesday called Saudi Arabia an important ally, noting it is an important customer for U.S. military exports.

Turkish officials have said Khashoggi was murdered in the Saudis' Istanbul consulate, which Saudi officials have denied.

U.S. officials say they are taking Khashoggi’s disappearance seriously, but Trump says he has not sent the FBI, stressing that he was not “American citizen.”

In an interview with The Associated Press, Trump compared the case of Khashoggi, who Turkish officials have said was murdered in the Saudis' Istanbul consulate, to the allegations of sexual assault leveled against Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh during his confirmation hearing.

"I think we have to find out what happened first," Trump said. "Here we go again with, you know, you're guilty until proven innocent. I don't like that. We just went through that with Justice Kavanaugh and he was innocent all the way as far as I'm concerned."

Trump's remarks were his most robust defense yet of the Saudis, a U.S. ally he has made central to his Mideast agenda. They put the president at odds with other key allies and with some leaders in his Republican Party who have condemned the Saudi leadership for what they say is an obvious role in the case. Trump appeared willing to resist the pressure to follow suit, accepting Saudi denials and their pledge to investigate.

The Oval Office interview came not long after Trump spoke Tuesday with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. He spoke by phone a day earlier with King Salman, and he said both deny any knowledge of what happened to Khashoggi.

President Donald Trump speaks during an interview with The Associated Press in the Oval Office of the White House, Tuesday, Oct. 16, 2018, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
President Donald Trump speaks during an interview with The Associated Press in the Oval Office of the White House, Tuesday, Oct. 16, 2018, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci) (AP)

After speaking with the king, Trump floated the idea that "rogue killers" may have been responsible for the disappearance. The president told the AP on Tuesday that that description was informed by his "feeling" from his conversation with Salman and that the king did not use the term.

In Turkey earlier Tuesday, a high-level Turkish official told the AP that police investigators searching the Saudi Consulate had found evidence that Khashoggi was killed there.

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Also Tuesday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met with the king and crown prince in Riyadh and said the Saudis had already started a "serious and credible investigation" and seemed to suggest it could lead to people within the kingdom. The secretary of state noted that the Saudi leaders, while denying knowledge of anything that occurred inside the consulate, had committed to accountability "including for Saudi Arabia's senior leaders or senior officials."

Pompeo was heading next to Turkey, where officials have accused the Saudis of using a 15-member team to kill Khashoggi inside the consulate.

Turkey's Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, left, talks with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at the Esenboga Airport in Ankara, Turkey, Wednesday, Oct. 17, 2018. Pro-government newspaper Yeni Safak on Wednesday said it had obtained audio recordings of the alleged killing of Saudi writer Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi Arabia's consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2.(Cem Ozdel/Turkish Foreign Ministry via AP, Pool)
Turkey's Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, left, talks with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at the Esenboga Airport in Ankara, Turkey, Wednesday, Oct. 17, 2018. Pro-government newspaper Yeni Safak on Wednesday said it had obtained audio recordings of the alleged killing of Saudi writer Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi Arabia's consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2.(Cem Ozdel/Turkish Foreign Ministry via AP, Pool) (AP)

Trump said he hoped the Saudis' own investigation of Khashoggi's disappearance would be concluded in "less than a week."

In the meantime, there were signs at home that Trump's party was growing uncomfortable with his willingness to defend the Saudis.

In an interview with Fox News, a prominent Trump ally in the Senate called on Saudi Arabia to reject the crown prince, known as MBS, who rose to power last year and has aggressively sought to soften the kingdom's image abroad and attract foreign investment.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo meets with the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Tuesday Oct. 16, 2018. Pompeo also met on Tuesday with Saudi King Salman over the disappearance and alleged slaying of Saudi writer Jamal Khashoggi, who vanished two weeks ago during a visit to the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. (Leah Millis/Pool via AP)
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo meets with the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Tuesday Oct. 16, 2018. Pompeo also met on Tuesday with Saudi King Salman over the disappearance and alleged slaying of Saudi writer Jamal Khashoggi, who vanished two weeks ago during a visit to the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. (Leah Millis/Pool via AP) (AP)

"This guy has got to go," said Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, turning to speak to the camera. "Saudi Arabia, if you're listening, there are a lot of good people you can choose, but MBS has tainted your country and tainted himself."

Khashoggi, a Saudi citizen who was also a resident of the United States, has been a contributor to The Washington Post and a critic of Saudi leaders, especially Crown Prince Mohammed.

International leaders and business executives are severing or rethinking ties to the Saudi government after Khashoggi's high-profile disappearance. Trump has resisted any action, pointing to huge U.S. weapons deals pending with Saudi Arabia and saying that sanctions could end up hurting the American economy.

FILE - In this Dec. 15, 2014, file photo, Jamal Khashoggi, general manager of a new Arabic news channel, speaks during a news conference in Manama, Bahrain. Saudi Arabia is paying influential lobbyists, lawyers and public relations experts nearly $6 million a year to engage U.S. officials and promote the Middle East nation, even after several firms cut ties with the kingdom following the disappearance of journalist Khashoggi. (AP Photo/Hasan Jamali, File)
FILE - In this Dec. 15, 2014, file photo, Jamal Khashoggi, general manager of a new Arabic news channel, speaks during a news conference in Manama, Bahrain. Saudi Arabia is paying influential lobbyists, lawyers and public relations experts nearly $6 million a year to engage U.S. officials and promote the Middle East nation, even after several firms cut ties with the kingdom following the disappearance of journalist Khashoggi. (AP Photo/Hasan Jamali, File) (AP)

He said it was too early to say whether he endorsed other countries' actions. "I have to find out what happened," he said. But his complaint about "guilty until proven innocent" and comparison to the Kavanaugh situation suggested he was giving the Saudis more leeway than other allies.

Khashoggi went to the consulate on Oct. 2 to get documents for his upcoming marriage to a Turkish woman while his fiancee waited outside. She and Turkish authorities say he never emerged and he has not been heard from since.

Khashoggi, 59, had been living in the U.S. for a year in self-imposed exile and writing columns for the opinion section of the Post.

Trump said Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin's trip to attend a Saudi investment conference is still on but could be canceled by Friday depending on what the investigation finds.

"I think we'll also be guided by what other countries are doing," he said.

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AP Writer Matthew Lee contributed.

Copyright 2018 Associated Press. All rights reserved. Raycom News Network contributed to this report.