The Trump administration denied on Saturday that it had reached a final determination in the death of Saudi writer Jamal Khashoggi.
After President Donald Trump called his CIA chief and top diplomat from Air Force One as he flew to survey wildfire damage in California, the State Department released a statement saying “recent reports indicating that the U.S. government has made a final conclusion are inaccurate.”
American intelligence agencies have concluded that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered the killing in the Saudi Consulate in Turkey, according to a U.S. official familiar with the assessment. The official was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity Friday. The conclusion was first reported by The Washington Post.
The Saudi government has denied the claim.
Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said in the statement Saturday that the government was “determined to hold all those responsible for the killing of Jamal Khashoggi accountable” and that “there remain numerous unanswered questions with respect to the murder.”
She said the department “will continue to seek all relevant facts” and consult with Congress and other nations “to hold accountable those involved in the killing.”
Trump spoke earlier with CIA Director Gina Haspel and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo from Air Force One, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said. She provided no details but said the president has confidence in the CIA.
Trump told reporters before he left the White House for California that, when it came to the crown prince, “as of this moment we were told that he did not play a role. We’re going to have to find out what they have to say.”
In his remarks, the president spoke of Saudi Arabia as “a truly spectacular ally in terms of jobs and economic development.”
“I have to take a lot of things into consideration” when deciding what measures to take against the kingdom, he said.
The State Department statement noted the administration’s recent actions against a number of Saudis, but also cited the need to maintain “the important strategic relationship” between the two allies.
The intelligence agencies’ conclusion will bolster efforts in Congress to further punish the close U.S. ally for the killing. The administration this past week penalized 17 Saudi officials for their alleged role in the killing, but American lawmakers have called on the administration to curtail arms sales to Saudi Arabia or take other harsher punitive measures.
Saudi Arabia’s top diplomat has said the crown prince had “absolutely” nothing to do with the killing.
Vice President Mike Pence told reporters traveling with him at a summit of Pacific Rim nations in Papua New Guinea that he could not comment on “classified information.” He said Saturday “the murder of Jamal Khashoggi was an atrocity. It was also an affront to a free and independent press, and the United States is determined to hold all of those accountable who are responsible for that murder.”
The United States will “follow the facts,” Pence said, while trying to find a way of preserving a “strong and historic partnership” with Saudi Arabia.
Khashoggi, a Saudi who lived in the United States, was a columnist for the Post and often criticized the royal family. He was killed Oct. 2 at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. Turkish and Saudi authorities say he was killed inside the consulate by a team from the kingdom after he went there to get marriage documents.
This past week, U.S. intelligence officials briefed members of the Senate and House intelligence committees, and the Treasury Department announced economic sanctions on 17 Saudi officials suspected of being responsible for or complicit in the killing.
Among those targeted for sanctions were Mohammed al-Otaibi, the diplomat in charge of the consulate, and Maher Mutreb, who was part of the crown prince’s entourage on trips abroad.
The sanctions freeze any assets the 17 may have in the U.S. and prohibit any Americans from doing business with them.
Also this past week, the top prosecutor in Saudi Arabia announced he will seek the death penalty against five men suspected in the killing. The prosecutor’s announcement sought to quiet the global outcry over Khashoggi’s death and distance the killers and their operation from the kingdom’s leadership, primarily the crown prince.
Trump has called the killing a botched operation that was carried out very poorly and has said “the cover-up was one of the worst cover-ups in the history of cover-ups.”
But he has resisted calls to cut off arms sales to the kingdom and has been reluctant to antagonize the Saudi rulers. Trump considers the Saudis vital allies in his Mideast agenda.