Trump vows 'severe punishment' if Saudis killed Jamal Khashoggi

President repeats refusal to jeopardise arms deal but tells CBS: ‘There’s a lot at stake … because this man was a reporter’

Donald Trump does not want to “hurt jobs” by sanctioning Saudi Arabia over the disappearance of Jamal Khashoggi, but has nonetheless promised “severe punishment” if regime involvement in the journalist’s death is confirmed.

Trump also said the fact that Khashoggi was a reporter made the case “really terrible and disgusting”.

The president made the comments to CBS in an interview to be broadcast on 60 Minutes on Sunday, his first with network television since he spoke to the same show after his election in 2016. Trump usually favours Fox News, a politically friendly cable outlet.

Khashoggi, a US permanent resident, is a prominent critic of the Saudi government. He has not been seen since 2 October, when he entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Turkish investigators have said they believe he was killed by a “hit squad” and that audio and video recordings prove it. US sources have said intelligence agencies knew Khashoggi was in danger.

Riyadh has denied involvement but international pressure has grown, with leading companies pulling out of an economic summit.

At the White House on Saturday Trump met Andrew Brunson, the American pastor released from jail in Turkey this week in a move some analysts said showed Ankara attempting to get Washington onside.

Answering reporters’ questions about Khashoggi, the president said Brunson’s release was a “total coincidence”. Asked if his treasury secretary, Steven Mnuchin, would still attend the Saudi summit, Trump referred the question to his secretary of state. Mike Pompeo said he was still “evaluating” the situation and had spoken to Mnuchin.

Trump also said he had invited Khashoggi’s fiancee, Hatice Cengiz, who waited outside the Saudi consulate while the reporter went in, to the White House. Trump repeated that he was not sure what had happened in Istanbul and referred questions to Pompeo, who offered flatly diplomatic deflections.

Trump indicated that he had not heard audio that reportedly records Khashoggi’s death, but said he expected he would “soon”. He would speak to King Salman “today or tomorrow”, he said.

The Trump administration has deep ties to the Saudi regime and has maintained a cautious approach to the Khashoggi case. On Saturday the president repeated what he said earlier this week, that the US would not forego lucrative arms deals with Riyadh, an action by which he said the country would only “punish itself”.

“There are other things we can do that are very, very powerful, very strong and we’ll do them,” he said, without saying specifying what those things might be.

The CBS interview took place at the White House on Thursday. According to a clip released on Saturday, Trump was asked if he believed Khashoggi was murdered by the Saudis and whether crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is close to his son-in-law Jared Kushner, gave the order to kill him.

“Nobody knows yet,” the president said, “but we’ll probably be able to find out. It’s being investigated, it’s being looked at very, very strongly, we would be very upset and angry if that were the case. As of this moment they deny it and they deny it vehemently. Could it be them? Yes.”

Trump said Kushner had spoken to the prince and said the Saudis “deny it in every way you can imagine”.

Asked if he would back sanctions against Riyadh as proposed by a bipartisan group of senators, Trump said: “It depends on what the sanctions [are]. Let me give you an example. They are ordering military equipment. Everybody in the world wanted that order. Russia wanted it, China wanted it, we wanted it. We got it and we got all of it, every bit of it.

“I tell you what I don’t want to do. Boeing, Lockheed, Raytheon, all these companies. I don’t want to hurt jobs. I don’t want to lose an order like that. And you know there are other ways of punishing, to use a word that’s a pretty harsh word, but it’s true.”

Asked to “tell everybody what’s at stake here”, Trump alluded to his own attacks on the press as the “enemy of the people”, which many critics have decried as dangerous and provocative.

He said: “Well there’s a lot at stake. There’s a lot at stake and maybe especially so because this man was a reporter.

“There’s something – you’ll be surprised to hear me say that – there’s something really terrible and disgusting about that if that were the case, so we’re going to have to see. We’re going to get to the bottom of it and there will be severe punishment.”


Martin Pengelly in New York

The GuardianTramp

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