Trump’s comments came hours after Turkey’s president, Tayyip Erdogan, dismissed Saudi efforts to blame Khashoggi’s death on rogue operatives.
Erdogan urged Riyadh search “from top to bottom” to uncover those behind Khashoggi’s death in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2, an incident that has prompted global outrage and strained relations between Riyadh and Washington.
Asked by a reporter in the White House Oval Office how the Khashoggi killing could have happened, Trump said: “They had a very bad original concept. It was carried out poorly, and the cover-up was one of the worst in the history of cover-ups.”
Khashoggi, a critic of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, was a US resident and Washington Post columnist.
Trump’s comments have ranged from threatening Saudi Arabia with “very severe” consequences and mentioning possible economic sanctions, to more conciliatory remarks highlighting the country’s role as a US ally against Iran and Islamist militants, as well as a major purchaser of US arms.
On Tuesday, Trump said the Khashoggi matter was handled badly by Saudi officials. “Bad deal, should have never been thought of. Somebody really messed up. And they had the worst cover-up ever,” Trump said.
Trump hasn’t given his view on who was ultimately responsible but Secretary of State Mike Pompeo says some of Saudi government and security officials have been identified and appropriate actions will be taken against them, including revoking their visas.
As the crisis has unfolded, Saudi Arabia has changed its tune on Khashoggi. Riyadh initially denied knowledge of Khashoggi’s fate before saying on Saturday he was killed in a fight in the consulate, an account met with scepticism from several Western governments, straining their relations with the world’s biggest oil exporter.
Saudi state media said on Saturday King Salman fired five officials over the killing carried out by a 15-man hit team, including Saud al-Qahtani, a top aide who ran social media for Prince Mohammed. According to two intelligence sources, Qahtani ran Khashoggi’s killing by giving orders over Skype.
King Salman, 82, has handed the day-to-day running of Saudi Arabia to the 33-year-old crown prince.
Turkish officials suspect Khashoggi was killed and dismembered inside the consulate by Saudi agents. Erdogan on Tuesday stopped short of mentioning the crown prince who some US lawmakers suspect ordered the killing.
“The Saudi administration has taken an important step by admitting to the murder. From now on, we expect them to uncover all those responsible for this matter from top to bottom and make them face the necessary punishments,” Erdogan said in a speech in parliament.
“From the person who gave the order, to the person who carried it out, they must all be brought to account,” Turkey’s president said, adding that the Saudis need to “uncover all those responsible for this matter from top to bottom.”
Turkish sources have said that authorities have an audio recording purportedly documenting the killing. Erdogan made no reference to any audio recording.
A Saudi cabinet meeting chaired by King Salman said Riyadh would hold to account those responsible for the killing and those who failed in their duties, whoever they were.
Turkish investigators searched a Saudi consulate vehicle in Istanbul that contained two suitcases and other items, according to broadcaster CNN Turk. It was not clear what was in the suitcases.
CIA Director Gina Haspel is in Turkey to investigate the death and understood to be seeking to hear the purported audio recording of his torture and murder.
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