President Donald Trump has said it “certainly looks” as though Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi is dead, and he threatened “very severe” consequences if the Saudis are found to have murdered him.
As the US toughened its response to Mr Khashoggi’s disappearance, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin pulled out of a major Saudi investment conference amid global pressure.
However, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also said the kingdom should be given more time to investigate before the US lays any blame or considers action.
President Trump, who has insisted that more facts must be known before making assumptions about Mr Khashoggi, did not say on what he based his statement on the writer’s demise two weeks ago.
He commented as he left Joint Base Andrews for a political trip to Montana.
Asked if Mr Khashoggi was dead, he said, “It certainly looks that way. … Very sad.”
While Turkish officials have accused Saudi Arabia of the murder in Istanbul of Mr Khashoggi, a US-based writer who has been critical of Saudi leaders, President Trump has cautioned against a rush to judgment against an important Midle East ally.
And Mr Pompeo, just back from talks with Saudi and Turkish leaders, said earlier on Thursday that the US needed more facts before deciding “how, or if” to respond.
Meanwhile, Treasury Secretary Mr Mnuchin announced, “We have decided I will not be participating in the Future Investment Initiative summit in Saudi Arabia.”
The Saudis had hoped to use the forum, billed as “Davos in the Desert” to boost their global image, but a number of European finance ministers and many top business executives have pulled out as international pressure on Riyadh has intensified over Mr Khashoggi.
Turkish reports say Mr Khashoggi was brutally murdered and dismembered inside the Saudi Consulate by members of an assassination squad with ties to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
The Saudis have dismissed those reports as baseless but have yet to explain what happened to Mr Khashoggi, who was seen on video entering the consulate but has not been seen since.
President Trump has rejected talk that his reluctance to act is providing cover for the Saudis. And a senior US official said Mr Pompeo had warned the Saudi crown prince that his credibility as a future leader was at stake, reflecting the administration’s concern about how the case could affect relations.
Mr Pompeo, who returned late on Wednesday from an emergency visit to Riyadh and Ankara to impress on senior officials in both nations the need for a credible investigation, said: “I told President Trump this morning that we ought to give them a few more days to complete that so that we, too, have a complete understanding of the facts surrounding that, at which point we can make decisions about how, or if, the United States should respond to the incident surrounding Mr Khashoggi.”
Mr Pompeo declined to comment on what the US believes might have happened to Mr Khashoggi, but made clear Washington takes the situation “very seriously”.
He said that Saudi leaders, including the crown prince, “assured me that they will conduct a complete, thorough investigation of all of the facts surrounding Mr Khashoggi, and that they will do so in a timely fashion, and that this report itself will be transparent for everyone to see, to ask questions about, and to inquire with respect to its thoroughness”.
He cautioned, however, that whatever response the administration might decide on would take into account the importance of the long-standing US-Saudi partnership.
“They’re an important strategic ally of the United States, and we need to be mindful of that,” he said.