Pres. Trump demands answers from Saudi ally about missing writer

PHOTO: Jamal Khashoggi, Saudi journalist and Washington Post columnist, author and the former general manager and editor-in-chief of Al Arab News Channel
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WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump and members of Congress demanded answers Wednesday from Saudi Arabia about the fate of a prominent Saudi writer and government critic who disappeared a week ago after entering his country's consulate in Istanbul.

Trump said he didn't know what happened to Jamal Khashoggi and expressed hope that the 59-year-old writer was still alive, but senior members of Congress said they were starting to fear the worst.

Republican Sen. Bob Corker, who has reviewed intelligence reports on the disappearance as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said that "the likelihood is he was killed on the day he walked into the consulate" and that "there was Saudi involvement" in whatever happened with Khashoggi, who wrote columns for The Washington Post.

"The Saudis have a lot of explaining to do because all indications are that they have been involved at minimum with his disappearance," Corker told The Associated Press. "Everything points to them."

Khashoggi, a wealthy former government insider who had been living in the U.S. in self-imposed exile, had gone to the consulate Oct. 2 to get paperwork he needed for his upcoming marriage while his Turkish fiancee waited outside.

Turkish authorities have said he was killed by members of an elite Saudi "assassination squad," an allegation the Saudi government has dismissed.

The Saudi government has become a closer U.S. ally under Trump, and some lawmakers warn that relations could be jeopardized if it turns out the kingdom was involved in his disappearance.

Trump told reporters in the Oval Office that he has a call in to Khashoggi's fiancee, Hatice Cengiz, who has appealed to the president and first lady Melania Trump for help.

Trump said he had spoken with the Saudis about what he called a "bad situation," but he did not disclose details of his conversations.

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said national security adviser John Bolton and presidential senior adviser Jared Kushner spoke on Tuesday to Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman about Khashoggi. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo then had a follow-up call with the crown prince to reiterate the U.S. request for information and a thorough, transparent investigation.

While angry members of Congress likely won't cause the administration to turn away from Crown Prince Mohammed and end decades of close security ties with Saudi Arabia, they could throw a wrench into arms sales that require their approval and demand the U.S. scale back support for the Saudi military campaign against Iran-backed rebels in Yemen.

Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., said if Saudi Arabia had lured a U.S. resident into a consulate and killed him, "it's time for the United States to rethink our military, political and economic relationship with Saudi Arabia."

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., a longtime critic of the Saudi government, said he'll try to force a vote in the Senate this week blocking U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia. He told local radio in his home state Tuesday that he wants to end the arms shipments if there's "any indication" the Saudis are "implicated in killing this journalist that was critical of them."

Washington Post CEO and publisher Fred Ryan said reports suggested the journalist was a victim of "state-sponsored, cold-blooded murder." He demanded answers, saying "Silence, denials and delays are not acceptable."

The Saudi ambassador to Washington, Prince Khalid bin Salman bin Abdulaziz, has described the allegations as "malicious leaks and grim rumors" and said the kingdom is "gravely concerned" about Khashoggi. Saudi officials maintain he left the consulate shortly after entering, though it has failed to provide evidence to back that up, such as video footage.

Trump's comments Wednesday were the toughest yet from his administration. The reaction from European governments has also been cautious.

Analysts said there were reasons for skepticism about the Turkish account. Ties between Ankara and Riyadh are at a low point over Turkey's support for Qatar in that country's yearlong dispute with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf nations. Saudi Arabia, a Sunni Muslim power, is also annoyed by Ankara's rapprochement with the kingdom's Shiite archrival, Iran.

The Trump administration, from the president on down, is heavily invested in the Saudi relationship. That's unlikely to change, said Robin Wright, a scholar at the Wilson Center think tank and close friend of the missing writer. The administration's Middle East agenda heavily depends on the Saudis, including efforts to counter Iranian influence in the region, fight extremism and build support for an expected plan for peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

Indication of those stakes came within four months of Trump taking office, when Saudi Arabia became his first destination on a presidential trip and he announced $110 billion in proposed arms sales.

Crown Prince Mohammed has introduced some economic and social reforms, allowing women to drive and opening movie theaters in the deeply conservative Muslim nation. The flip side, however, is that he's also squelched dissent and imprisoned activists. He has championed the three-year military campaign against Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen that has pushed that nation toward famine and caused many civilian deaths.

Still, the Trump administration last month stood behind its support for that campaign with weapons, logistics and intelligence, certifying that the Saudis were taking adequate steps to prevent civilian deaths despite mounting evidence to the contrary.

Karen Elliott House, a veteran writer on Saudi affairs and chairwoman of the board of trustees at RAND Corp., said U.S. support for the Yemen war is likely to be the focus of congressional criticism but won't endanger a relationship that has endured for decades, underpinned by shared strategic interests. Even under the Obama administration, which had difficult relations with Riyadh compared with Trump, there were some $65 billion in completed arms sales.

"The U.S.-Saudi relationship is certainly not about shared moral values," House said. "It's about shared security interests."

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Associated Press writers Alan Fram, Susannah George, Matthew Lee and Deb Riechmann and video journalist Padmananda Rama contributed to this report.