Trump’s tone shifts on Khashoggi, raising the prospect of US sanctions on Saudi Arabia

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WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump on Friday acknowledged that an “event” occurred earlier this month at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, where journalist Jamal Khashoggi is believed to have been killed.

The president also said he knew “a lot already” about what had happened to the dissident journalist, but he declined to say exactly what. This came just a day after Trump had called Khashoggi’s suspected death “bad, bad stuff.”

Trump emphasized that his administration would “find out who knew what, when and where” about Khashoggi’s fate. He also said Congress will be involved “very much” on what the next steps would be in the U.S.-Saudi relationship. “I will very much listen to what Congress has to say,” Trump told reporters.

Several top Republicans in Congress have called for swift sanctions on the longtime U.S. ally in retaliation for Khashoggi’s death. But Trump has voiced concerns both publicly and privately about the potential risk of upending the longstanding military and diplomatic relationship.

Even as Trump refuted reports that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo received intelligence about Khashoggi’s death from the Turkish government, it was evident Friday that there was a shift in the president’s attitude toward Saudi Arabia, a longtime U.S. ally in the Middle East.

Trump appeared to dismiss the claims underpinning blanket denials coming from Saudi officials, who insist they know nothing about Khashoggi’s disappearance.

Representatives of the ruling Saudi royal family have yet to offer any alternative to their initial version of events, which was that Khashoggi entered the Saudi consulate on Oct. 2, and he walked out a short while later.

On Thursday, Trump said for the first time Khashoggi had most likely been killed. The president did not, however, say how he had reached this conclusion. Turkish officials have reportedly identified 15 Saudi officials they believe carried out the extra-judicial killing, several of whom work directly for Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Asked by a reporter whether Khashoggi was dead, Trump replied, “It certainly looks that way.”

The president also took a harder line Thursday on what potential consequences Saudi Arabia might face if they are shown to have been involved in the dissident journalist’s death.

“It will have to be very severe,” Trump told reporters at Andrews Air Force Base. “It’s bad, bad stuff,” Trump said, before tacking on his preferred caveat: “But we’ll see what happens.”

Turkish officials have reportedly said they are in possession of tapes proving that Khashoggi was tortured to death and that his body was later dismembered. So far no U.S. officials have confirmed that they’ve seen the alleged tapes.

Pompeo visited both Saudi Arabia and Turkey this week, but returned with few answers about what actually happened. Saudi Arabia claims it is conducting an internal investigation into Khashoggi’s disappearance, but it has yet to present any results.