WASHINGTON - President Donald Trump criticized growing condemnation of Saudi Arabia and allegations it is behind the disappearance of a Saudi journalist, saying, "Here we go again with, you know, you're guilty until proven innocent," in an interview Tuesday with the Associated Press.
Trump compared the case of Jamal Khashoggi, a missing journalist who was critical of the Saudi monarchy, with the case of his recent Supreme Court nominee who faced sexual abuse allegations.
"We just went through that with Justice [Brett] Kavanaugh and he was innocent all the way as far as I'm concerned," Trump told the AP. "I think we have to find out what happened first."
The interview was released after U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met with Saudi Arabia's King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman about Khashoggi, who was last seen Oct. 2 entering Riyadh's consulate in Istanbul to fill out paperwork for his upcoming marriage to his Turkish fiancee, Hatice Cengiz.
The Saudis have rejected Turkish claims that Saudi agents murdered Khashoggi inside the consulate. However, U.S. news reports said Saudi Arabia was edging toward acknowledging that Khashoggi was killed after he entered the consulate, blaming his death on an interrogation gone wrong.
Khashoggi, a critic of the crown prince in columns written for The Washington Post, had been living in the U.S. in self-imposed exile.
Pompeo's visit to Riyadh came hours after Turkish crime scene investigators finished an inspection of the Saudi consulate. The AP quoted an unnamed high-level Turkish official as saying that evidence was found there of Khashoggi's killing, without elaborating, while Reuters said investigators found "strong evidence" but no conclusive proof of Khashoggi's death.
The Turkish official also told AP that authorities were likely to search the consul general's home. The diplomat had left Turkey, according to the official.
In a statement after meetings with both the Saudi king and crown prince, Pompeo said they "strongly denied any knowledge of what took place in their consulate in Istanbul."
"My assessment from these meetings is that there is serious commitment to determine all the facts and ensure accountability, including accountability for Saudi Arabia's senior leaders or senior officials," he said in a statement.
Pompeo next travels to Turkey to meet with officials there.
While Pompeo was in Riyadh, Trump said on Twitter that he had talked with the crown prince, the country's de facto leader, "who totally denied any knowledge of what took place in their Turkish consulate."
Trump said the Saudi leader assured him that "he has already started, and will rapidly expand, a full and complete investigation into this matter. Answers will be forthcoming shortly."
...during the call, and told me that he has already started, and will rapidly expand, a full and complete investigation into this matter. Answers will be forthcoming shortly.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 16, 2018
The U.S. State Department said Pompeo made it clear to the Saudis that "learning what happened to Jamal Khashoggi is the primary reason" Trump dispatched him to Riyadh, and that the matter "is of great interest to the president."
Pompeo met first with King Salman, then twice with the crown prince. As they sat down for their first meeting, the crown prince, in English, told Pompeo, "We are strong and old allies. We face our challenges together — the past, the day of, tomorrow."
"Absolutely," Pompeo replied.
While the meetings were going on, Trump, in Washington, said on Twitter, "For the record, I have no financial interests in Saudi Arabia (or Russia, for that matter). Any suggestion that I have is just more FAKE NEWS (of which there is plenty)!"
For the record, I have no financial interests in Saudi Arabia (or Russia, for that matter). Any suggestion that I have is just more FAKE NEWS (of which there is plenty)!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 16, 2018
But during a 2015 campaign stop, Trump boasted about his business dealings with the Saudis. "Saudi Arabia, I get along with all of them," Trump said. "They buy apartments from me. They spend $40 million, $50 million. Am I supposed to dislike them? I like them very much."
As he dispatched Pompeo to Riyadh on Monday, Trump told reporters at the White House that King Salman's denials to him about Khashoggi's fate in a phone call "could not have been stronger."
U.S. lawmakers' reactions
But some lawmakers in the U.S. have all but accepted Turkey's version of the events, that a team of Saudi agents arrived in Istanbul and killed Khashoggi when he went to the consulate.
Republican Senator Lindsey Graham said Tuesday the U.S. should "sanction the hell out of Saudi Arabia" over the incident and said he would never again work with the crown prince, assailing him as "toxic" and calling him a "wrecking ball."
The State Department said Pompeo also met with Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir, continuing their conversations from the recent United Nations General Assembly about a range of Middle East issues and U.S.-Saudi concerns.
Up until this point, Saudi officials have strongly denied accusations that Khashoggi was murdered, saying instead he left the diplomatic outpost on his own. Neither side has publicly shown clear evidence to back up its claims, and the two governments agreed on a joint working group to probe Khashoggi's disappearance.
State Department correspondent Nike Ching contributed to this report.