Donald Trump has said that the Saudi operation to kill Jamal Khashoggi in Riyadh’s consulate in Istanbul led to “one of the worst cover-ups” in history, as the US said it would sanction officials who were implicated in the writer’s death.
Twenty-one Saudis will have their US visas revoked or be made ineligible for US visas over the journalist’s killing, a state department spokeswoman, Heather Nauert, said on Tuesday.
Mike Pompeo, the US secretary of state, said that other measures were being considered, including sanctions: “These penalties will not be the last word on the matter from the United States.
“We’re making very clear that the United States does not tolerate this kind of ruthless action to silence Mr Khashoggi, a journalist, through violence.”
The visa revocations would be the first punitive measures taken by the administration against the Saudis since Khashoggi disappeared after entering the consulate on 2 October.
Speaking to reporters in the Oval Office, 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.”
He added: “Because whoever thought of that idea, I think is in big trouble. And they should be in big trouble. OK?”
Khashoggi’s death in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul has caused global outrage and strained relations between Riyadh and Washington. Khashoggi, a critic of the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, was a US resident and columnist for the Washington Post.
But Trump has given mixed messages over recent days, vowing “very severe” consequences and mentioning possible economic sanctions, but also ruling out a block on arms sales to Saudi Arabia, and highlighting the country’s role as a US ally against Iran and Islamist militants
At the weekend, the US president said he thought that Saudi claims that Khashoggi had died in a “fistfight” were credible, and termed it an “important first step”.
His comments on Tuesday came after the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, publicly tore down the Saudi version, making fresh allegations that Khashoggi’s “savage” murder was premeditated, and calling for an independent investigation.
Erdoğan had billed his keenly awaited address at the Turkish parliament in Ankara as the moment he would reveal the “naked truth”about what happened to Khashoggi. He said he was not satisfied with Riyadh’s suggestion that the killing was a rogue extradition operation gone wrong, and called for the “highest ranked” of those responsible to be brought to justice.
“Intelligence and security institutions have evidence showing the murder was planned … Pinning such a case on some security and intelligence members will not satisfy us or the international community,” he said. “From the person who gave the order, to the person who carried it out, they must all be brought to account.”
Contrary to expectations Erdoğan’s first update on the three-week-old case did not officially reveal the existence of audio and video evidence understood to be in Turkey’s possession.
Erdoğan did reveal that on the day before Khashoggi was killed, Saudi agents arrived in Istanbul and began to scout locations, including the Belgrad forest near Istanbul and the city of Yalova to its south. Police have subsequently searched both areas for Khashoggi’s remains.
The president did not name the powerful Mohammed bin Salman, the kingdom’s de facto ruler who, it is alleged, was probably aware of, and possibly even ordered, the silencing of his prominent critic, but observers were in little doubt to whom his repeated mentions of “highest ranked” referred.
He otherwise spoke of the “sincerity” of Saudi Arabia’s King Salman in the investigation. The gaps in the speech suggested Erdoğan has more cards to play in the evolving diplomatic crisis.
Erdoğan’s speech came as the Saudi foreign ministry released extraordinary photos of Khashoggi’s son, Salah bin Jamal Khashoggi, meeting the crown prince and king in Riyadh on Tuesday.
Saudi Arabia’s widely derided version of events has created a scandal for the kingdom. The G7 industrialised nations issued a fresh call for “a thorough, credible, transparent and prompt investigation”, adding Saudi Arabia needed to put in place “measures to ensure that something like this cannot happen again”.
Many western firms have pulled out of a large foreign investment conference in Riyadh that began on Tuesday.
On the ground in Istanbul on Tuesday, police told Turkish television that they had been allowed to search a diplomatic car belonging to the Saudi consulate in the presence of Saudi investigators. Two suitcases containing documents and a laptop had been retrieved from the vehicle, although it was not immediately clear who they belonged to.
Khashoggi did not appear to be carrying any belongings when he entered the consulate the day he died, and electronics are not allowed inside the building.
Surveillance footage shows that the car, found in an underground car park in Sultangazi district on Monday, was approached by a man who retrieved a package from the boot several days ago.
Tabling the new allegations that Saudi officials scoped out rural areas outside Istanbul the day before Khashoggi’s murder, Erdoğan said in his address that Turkey’s investigation was ongoing.
“Saudi Arabia has taken an important step by admitting the murder,” Erdoğan said. “As of now, we expect of them to openly bring to light those responsible – from the highest ranked to the lowest – and to bring them to justice.”
He said Saudi Arabia must relinquish control of the investigation into the “political” murder to an independent and unbiased Turkish operation in Istanbul.
Turkish investigators have steadily leaked evidence to the media that allegedly proves the journalist was tortured, murdered and his body dismembered within the consulate building. CCTV footage shows a body double dressed in Khashoggi’s clothes leaving the consulate and touring Istanbul’s landmarks, undermining the idea that the team interrogating Khashoggi meant to bring him back alive.
As reported by the Observer on Sunday, Turkish investigators may have intercepted the hit squad’s communications. Reuters said on Monday that Saud al-Qahtani, an influential adviser to Bin Salman, participated in a Skype call to the room in the consulate where Khashoggi was held, telling the team to “bring me the head of the dog”.