CIA director Gina Haspel is set to brief President Donald Trump on the investigation into the death of Jamal Khashoggi on Thursday, as the President increasingly expresses frustration with the Saudi response and the country's crown prince vows "justice" for the journalist's killers.
Haspel traveled to Turkey on Monday, apparently to assess information the Turks have collected on Khashoggi's killing inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. The Washington Post reported Wednesday that Haspel listened to audio purportedly of his interrogation and murder while she was in Turkey. Trump also said the US has sent officials to Saudi Arabia to get more information on the killing, which has spiraled into a crisis.
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The fallout has damaged Saudi Arabia, badly tarnished Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and raised questions about US foreign policy priorities that hinge on the kingdom's financing or cooperation. The ongoing questions have riled Trump, who has become increasingly irritated by the negative news coverage, sources say, and blames the Saudis for making him look bad.
'He's running things'
Haspel's briefing comes as Trump has begun to hint at a strong response to the Virginia resident's death. On Tuesday, Trump told reporters that Saudi authorities had staged the "worst cover-up ever" of the crime, and suggested to the Wall Street Journal that the crown prince may be responsible.
"The prince is running things over there more so at this stage," Trump said when asked about bin Salman's involvement. "He's running things and so if anybody were going to be, it would be him."
On Monday, Trump told reporters that "we have top intelligence people in Turkey. We're going to see what we have."
The Saudis have presented shifting stories about Khashoggi's fate, initially denying any knowledge before arguing that a group of rogue operators, many of whom belong to the crown prince's inner circle, were responsible for Khashoggi's death.
On Tuesday, Saudi sources claimed to CNN that the original plan had been to urge the dissident journalist to return to Saudi Arabia and if that failed, drug him and whisk him away to a safe house. They offered no evidence to corroborate their claims and no information on the whereabouts of Khashoggi's body, saying a local "collaborator" had disposed of it.
Sources have told CNN it is highly unlikely the operation would have taken place without the knowledge of the crown prince, who controls all of Saudi Arabia's security services.
That gives Trump some leverage over the 33-year-old crown prince, said Martin Indyk, a former US ambassador to Israel who's now with the Council on Foreign Relations.
"The ideal thing for Trump to do is recognize that Mohammed bin Salman is weakened by the outrageous murder of Khashoggi," said Indyk, who argues that the one threat to the crown prince's survival is if the US tells Saudi Arabia's King it cannot work with his heir apparent.
"His very survival depends on Trump working with him," Indyk said of bin Salman. "We have the opportunity to sit down with him and say, 'Listen, we can't go on like this. If you're going to be our partner, you have to be a reliable partner.' " That starts, Indyk said, with telling Saudi Arabia to stop the disastrous war in Yemen, where up to 14 million people are at risk of death from famine.
In Saudi Arabia, the crown prince addressed the crisis publicly for the first time at an investors conference Wednesday, calling the killing a "heinous" crime that was a "very, very painful incident for all Saudis."
Saudi officials said the crown prince also called Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Wednesday to discuss the investigation. Erdogan, who said Tuesday that the journalist had been the victim of a "ferocious" planned attack, has vowed to bring Khashoggi's killers to justice. Continual leaks from Turkish officials have increased the pressure on Trump to respond.
Last Friday, Trump had said the Saudis' story of a rogue operation gone wrong, and their promise to investigate, was a "very important first step." By Monday, he was chafing at the Saudis' monthlong time frame for their probe and telling reporters that "I am not satisfied with what I heard."
The State Department announced Tuesday that 21 Saudi suspects in Khashoggi's death will have their visas revoked or will be ineligible to get one, and Congress has triggered a probe that could result in human rights-related sanctions.
British Prime Minister Theresa May said Wednesday that the UK is also taking action against Saudi suspects. For those who have visas to the UK, she said, "those visas would be revoked today."
France will take "appropriate" punitive measures if Saudi Arabia's guilt in Khashoggi's killing is clearly established, a French government spokesman said Wednesday.
Trump administration officials and the President himself have couched their growing criticism of Saudi Arabia with caveats about the kingdom's importance as a strategic partner. The Trump administration is relying on Saudi Arabia to help it achieve its goals in the Middle East on an Israeli-Palestinian deal, fighting extremism, rebuilding Syria and countering Iran.
Saudi Arabia's ability to sell more oil will be especially crucial when US sanctions against Iranian oil sales come into effect on Nov. 4, taking an estimated 1 million barrels of oil a day off the market.