In Shift on Khashoggi Killing, Trump Edges Closer to Acknowledging a Saudi Role

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WASHINGTON — President Trump said on Thursday that he believes the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi is dead, and he expressed confidence in intelligence reports from multiple sources that strongly suggest a high-level Saudi role in Mr. Khashoggi’s assassination.

Mr. Trump stopped short of saying the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, was responsible for Mr. Khashoggi’s death. But he acknowledged that the allegations that the prince ordered the killing raised hard questions about the American alliance with Saudi Arabia and had ignited one of the most serious foreign policy crises of his presidency.

“This one has caught the imagination of the world, unfortunately,” Mr. Trump said in a brief interview with The New York Times in the Oval Office. “It’s not a positive. Not a positive.”

The shift in the president’s tone came shortly after a briefing by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and it signaled that after trying to defend the Saudi rulers, Mr. Trump was coming to terms with the far-reaching implications of the Khashoggi case and the likelihood that his closest ally in the Arab world was guilty of the grisly killing of a Saudi-born columnist for The Washington Post.

“Unless the miracle of all miracles happens, I would acknowledge that he’s dead,” Mr. Trump said. “That’s based on everything — intelligence coming from every side.” Later, before leaving on a trip to Montana, he was asked what the consequences would be if Saudi Arabia’s culpability was established.

“Well, it’ll have to be very severe,” he said. “I mean, it’s bad, bad stuff.”

But it is not at all clear what Mr. Trump has in mind, given the central role that Saudi Arabia plays in the president’s strategy for the Middle East and the web of ties that have developed between the prince and the White House, particularly with Mr. Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner.

In conversations with allies, the president has begun to distance himself from Prince Mohammed, 33, saying he barely knows him. And he has played down the relationship that Mr. Kushner has cultivated with the Saudi heir.

Mr. Trump also signed off on a decision by Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin to pull out of an investor conference in Riyadh, the Saudi capital, convened by Prince Mohammed — the highest-level American cancellation from a conference meant to showcase the Saudi kingdom’s progressive future.

Mr. Mnuchin announced his withdrawal after an Oval Office meeting that included Mr. Pompeo, who had just returned from a trip to Saudi Arabia and Turkey, where he pressed officials about the fate of Mr. Khashoggi, who vanished after walking into the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2.

Turkish officials said he was brutally killed and his body dismembered by a team of operatives sent from Saudi Arabia. In phone calls with Mr. Trump, Mr. Pompeo and other top American officials, Prince Mohammed and other Saudi leaders have denied any involvement.

Mr. Pompeo said on Thursday that the United States would give the Saudis a few more days to conduct their investigation. He told reporters at the White House that the Saudi report would be “transparent for everyone to see, to ask questions about and to acquire.”

Mr. Trump said in the interview it was still “a little bit early” in the process to draw definitive conclusions about who ordered the killing. But he expressed no doubt that the truth would come out soon. “We’re working with the intelligence from numerous countries,” he said.

“This is the best intelligence we could have,” Mr. Trump added.

Intelligence reports have drawn direct links between the Saudi operatives who traveled to Istanbul and the Saudi royal court. Four of the operatives, whose images were caught on surveillance video, served as guards for Prince Mohammed in April during his visit to the United States.

American intelligences agencies, however, are divided on the degree of responsibility that can be pinned on the prince — which is complicating an appraisal that they are compiling to present to the White House, according to a former senior administration official.

The Central Intelligence Agency, whose analysts draw on an array of hard facts and subjective judgments, are increasingly convinced that Prince Mohammed is culpable in Mr. Khashoggi’s death.

But other agencies have stopped short of that conclusion. The National Security Agency, for example, collected communications intercepts of Saudi officials discussing a plan to lure Mr. Khashoggi back to Saudi Arabia from his home in Virginia and then detain him, according to a former senior American official. But the intercepts do not reveal whether Prince Mohammed directly ordered the killing of Mr. Khashoggi.

During his conversation with The Times, Mr. Trump was uncharacteristically guarded. He declined repeated requests to discuss the chain of events that led to Mr. Khashoggi’s disappearance or the crown prince’s role.

In part, Mr. Trump acknowledged, that caution reflected his recognition that the Khashoggi case now posed a bigger challenge to him than other issues “because it’s taken on a bigger life than it would normally take on.”

Still, Mr. Trump emphasized the value of the alliance with Saudi Arabia to American military contractors and other firms. “They’ve been a very good ally, and they’ve bought massive amounts of various things and investments in this country, which I appreciate,” he said.

Those business ties have been sorely tested by the furor over Mr. Khashoggi. Before Mr. Mnuchin withdrew from the conference, known as the Future Investment Initiative, a stream of Wall Street and high-tech executives had canceled, citing the uncertainties over Mr. Khashoggi.

Mr. Mnuchin was planning to speak at the conference during a six-country, weeklong swing through the Middle East, focused on combating terrorism financing. Several prominent chief executives canceled plans to attend, along with ministers from Britain, France and the Netherlands.

The Treasury secretary, who had been fielding calls from executives in recent days about the wisdom of going, had urged people to focus on the facts and evidence. However, the pressure to cancel — which included calls from Republican lawmakers — became too much.

With so many executives and foreign officials scrapping plans to go to Riyadh, Mr. Mnuchin’s attendance emerged as a litmus test for the United States’ commitment to human rights. After Mr. Mnuchin’s decision, Goldman Sachs announced that Dina H. Powell, a senior executive who was previously a deputy national security adviser in the White House, would also not attend.

While Mr. Trump’s views appeared to be hardening, Mr. Kushner was still lobbying his father-in-law to stand by Prince Mohammed, arguing the scandal would eventually pass, according to two people who have had recent discussions with White House officials.

Even Mr. Pompeo reminded reporters of the United States’ long “strategic” relationship with the Saudis, dating back to 1932, and said the kingdom remained an “important counterterrorism partner.”

American intelligence officials have not yet had access to the audiotapes that Turkish officials say they have of Mr. Khashoggi’s interrogation, torture and death. That means they must rely on other information they have and what the Turks are telling them — which American officials say is credible.

The director of national intelligence, Dan Coats, will have to reconcile the differences between the C.I.A. and National Security Agency assessments. Mr. Coats has privately expressed concerns about presenting an appraisal that boxes in Mr. Trump or poses a challenge to the president’s intention to maintain a close relationship with the kingdom.

Nor does Mr. Coats want to give Mr. Trump an assessment noting dissenting views from intelligence agencies, as would be standard in any appraisal, especially one with such political explosiveness.

Even so, the former administration official said, an intelligence assessment that reflects the spy services’ best overall judgment but has no smoking gun linking Prince Mohammed to the killing could be one the White House could “choose to dismiss,” based on the lack of incriminating evidence — something he referred to as the “Kavanaugh defense.”

The Saudis will need to wrap up their investigation in the next few days, the former official said. The longer the delay, he added, the more likely Turkish officials will release more damning information, making it even more difficult for Saudi officials to present an explanation that will weather international scrutiny.

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