President Donald Trump said Thursday the U.S. has investigators in Turkey trying to determine what happened to Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, last seen entering Riyadh's consulate in Istanbul last week, but acknowledged his life is imperiled.
"He went in and didn't come out," Trump told the Fox & Friends news talk show. "It certainly doesn't look like he's around."
Turkish officials say they believe that Khashoggi, a critic of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman who wrote opinion articles for The Washington Post, was murdered inside the consulate last week by a team of 15 Saudi agents who flew into Istanbul, a contention Saudi Arabia has called "baseless."
In a new report, the newspaper said that U.S. intelligence intercepts showed that Salman had ordered an operation to lure Khashoggi back to Saudi Arabia from his home in the U.S. and then to detain him.
"We're being very tough," Trump said. "And we have investigators over there and we're working with Turkey, and frankly we're working with Saudi Arabia. We want to find out what happened."
Later, the White House declined comment on the role the U.S. is playing in the Khashoggi investigation.
State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said Thursday "the United States government has offered its support to the Turkish government to provide law enforcement assistance to the Turkish government. In terms of whether or not we have people on the ground, that's not something that I can address here from this podium. That's not something that the State Department does."
Nauert added, "We don't have an information on his whereabouts right now or what happened to him."
Retired FBI Special Agent David Gomez said the FBI maintains a two-person office at the U.S. Embassy in Ankara. "So it would be unnecessary to send agents from the States to conduct investigations," he said.
The agents, however, would have to work with local law enforcement counterparts because they lack legal authority, Gomez said.
Trump said "it would be a very sad thing" if Khashoggi has been killed and would set a "terrible, terrible precedent. I don't like it. No good."
Pressure from senators
Yet Trump said even if it is determined that Saudi Arabia was responsible for Khashoggi's disappearance, he is opposed to cutting off $110 billion in annual sales of U.S. weapons systems to Riyadh, because it would hurt U.S. defense manufacturers.
"That doesn't help us," Trump said, "knowing [the Saudis] have four or five other options" to buy arms from other countries.
A group of U.S. senators on Wednesday pressured Trump to hold Saudi Arabia, a longtime U.S. ally in the Middle East, accountable for Khashoggi's fate, possibly calling for sanctions against the kingdom if it finds human rights violations under terms of the Global Magnitsky Act of 2016.
The lawmakers said Khashoggi's disappearance "suggests that he could be a victim of a gross violation of internationally recognized human rights."
They told Trump, "Our expectation is that in making your determination you will consider any relevant information, including with respect to the highest ranking officials in the government of Saudi Arabia."
Under the law, Trump would have 120 days to report to the Senate with a determination and a decision on the imposition of sanctions.
The White House said Wednesday that top Trump administration officials have spoken to Salman about the mysterious disappearance of Khashoggi.
National Security Advisor John Bolton and senior adviser Jared Kushner, President Donald Trump's son-in-law, talked with Salman Tuesday, while Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had a follow-up call with the Saudi leader to reiterate the U.S. demand for information about the case, the White House said.
"In both calls, they asked for more details and for the Saudi government to be transparent in the investigation process," the White House said. Spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the U.S. is continuing to monitor the unfolding investigation in Istanbul, but offered no information about what the crown prince told the U.S. officials about Khashoggi's disappearance.
Trump told reporters he had talked with officials in Saudi Arabia "at the highest level" about Khashoggi's disappearance, but offered no indication on his whereabouts.
"It's a very sad situation, this is a bad situation," Trump said. "It's a terrible thing."
"Nobody knows what happened," Trump said, adding, "We want to get to the bottom of it. We cannot let this happen, to reporters, to anyone."
Trump declined to say whom he talked with in the Saudi government. He said his aides have been in contact with Khashoggi's fiancee, Hatice Cengiz, and hope to set up a meeting with her at the White House.
In another Fox News interview late Wednesday, Trump said it is too early for him to commit to any possible response should Saudi Arabia be responsible for Khashoggi's disappearance.
When asked if he would consider blocking U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia, Trump said that would hurt the United States, citing such deals as a big part of a booming U.S. economy.
Turkish officials say they believe Khashoggi, a critic of Salman who has been living in self-imposed exile in the U.S., was murdered October 2 inside the consulate when he went there to pick up documents to allow him to marry Cengiz, a Turkish national, or perhaps spirited away to Riyadh.
Saudi Arabia has described the allegation as unfounded, but has offered no proof that Khashoggi left the consulate alive, nor has Turkey produced evidence that he was killed inside the diplomatic outpost.
Cindy Saine at State Department and Masood Farivar contributed.