WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump raised the possibility Monday that “rogue killers” were behind the disappearance of a Saudi dissident journalist as the kingdom prepared to admit Jamal Khashoggi was killed in an interrogation gone wrong, according to a person familiar with the Saudi plans.
The new explanation served to shield Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia from any blame in the fate of Khashoggi, who has not been seen since entering the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul two weeks ago. Turkish officials have said Khashoggi was killed and dismembered after he disappeared in the consulate.
It also ran counter to the reports that have since emerged from the Turkish government, which have included signs of deliberate assassination. Among other things, Turkish officials have said, an autopsy specialist carrying a bone saw was among 15 Saudi operatives who flew to Istanbul on Oct. 2, the day Khashoggi disappeared.
Trump and King Salman of Saudi Arabia spoke for about 20 minutes in a Monday phone call, the president told reporters as he headed to visit areas in Georgia and Florida that were ravaged by Hurricane Michael.
During the call, Trump said King Salman denied any knowledge about what happened to Khashoggi.
“It sounded to me like maybe these could have been rogue killers — who knows,” Trump said.
The president’s comments opened a window for King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed to stand by their denials of involvement in Khashoggi’s disappearance.
Seasoned observers of Middle East politics, including some at senior levels of the Turkish government, have speculated for days about the likelihood that the royal court would seek to accuse a “rogue” operator within the Saudi security services of killing Khashoggi.
One person familiar with the Saudi plans said Monday that the Saudi government was preparing to describe a scenario that would protect the prince from any blame.
The person spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the plans. But he said the royal court would soon put out a narrative that an official within the kingdom’s intelligence services — who happened to be a friend of Crown Prince Mohammed — had carried out the killing.
The person said Prince Mohammed had approved an interrogation or rendition of Khashoggi back to Saudi Arabia. But, he said, the Saudi intelligence official was tragically incompetent as he eagerly sought to prove himself in secretive operations.
If the Saudi leaders are proved to have had a role in harm to Khashoggi, Trump most likely would face ramped-up pressure from Congress and other countries to respond.
Sen. Christopher S. Murphy, D-Conn., wrote in a Twitter post on Monday that he had heard the Saudis were pushing a “rogue killers” theory and called it “extraordinary” that the kingdom was able to get the president on board.
Trump’s comments, in a morning Twitter post and later in brief remarks to reporters, come as the Saudis have given Turkish authorities permission to search the Saudi Consulate in Turkey, where local officials believe Khashoggi was killed and dismembered.
Trump acknowledged the international focus on Khashoggi’s disappearance and Turkish reports that he was dismembered in his conversation with King Salman. Trump said he told the king: “The world is watching. The world is talking, and this is very important to get to the bottom of it.”
Trump said the secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, was traveling to Saudi Arabia later Monday morning to meet with King Salman.
The Saudi state news service reported a slightly different take on the conversation. In it, according to the report, Trump praised the cooperation between the Saudis and Turkish officials as they investigate Khashoggi’s disappearance.
The president also cited “the keenness of the kingdom’s leadership to clarify all relevant facts,” the Saudi news service reported.
U.S. intelligence agencies had previously intercepted communications of Saudi officials discussing a plan to draw Khashoggi back to Saudi Arabia from his home in exile in the Washington area and then detain him, a former senior U.S. official said last week.
The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss confidential intelligence reports, said it was impossible that this type of plan could have been carried out without the knowledge of the Saudi rulers.
Trump previously said the episode would not have an effect on U.S. relations with Saudi Arabia, a close ally in the Middle East. But Trump was already facing pressure from some in Congress to respond to the Saudis with some kind of economic sanctions.
The United States’ relationship with the Saudis has always been somewhat of a delicate balance, weighing economic considerations such as oil — and currently arms sales — with the kingdom’s record on human rights abuses.
As of Monday, the Treasury secretary, Steven Mnuchin, was still planning to attend an investor conference in Riyadh this month where the Saudi crown prince was expected to speak. Some U.S. companies that had planned to attend the conference, including The New York Times, have pulled out since Khashoggi’s disappearance.
On Sunday, in an interview with “60 Minutes” on CBS, Trump said that even as the Saudis denied involvement in Khashoggi’s disappearance, it was still possible that they were responsible.
Trump said that because Khashoggi is a journalist, the case was even more serious.
“There’s something really terrible and disgusting about that, if that were the case,” Trump told CBS. “We’re going to get to the bottom of it, and there will be severe punishment.”
Khashoggi went to the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2 to obtain a document for his wedding and he has not been seen or heard from since.
The columnist is one of the best-known media personalities in the kingdom and has been a confidant to several previous kings and princes.
Khashoggi moved to Washington after Crown Prince Mohammed began a kingdomwide anti-corruption crackdown, including efforts to silence dissidents.
Friends of Khashoggi’s speculated that the columnist’s harsh words about the crown prince in columns he contributed to The Washington Post — including comparing Prince Mohammed to President Vladimir Putin of Russia — landed him on the prince’s blacklist.