US President Donald Trump has described the killing of a Saudi journalist as a botched operation and a “bad original concept”.
Speaking to reporters at the White House, Trump said the entire operation was a fiasco as the US took its first steps toward punishing the Saudis by moving to revoke visas of the suspects.
“They had a very bad original concept,” Trump said. “It was carried out poorly, and the cover-up was one of the worst cover-ups in the history of cover-ups.
“Somebody really messed up, and they had the worst cover-up ever.”
Even in the face of ugly details of Jamal Khashoggi’s slaying, Trump has resisted calls to cut off arms sales to the gulf kingdom and has been reluctant to antagonise the Saudi rulers.
Trump considers the Saudis to be vital allies in his Mideast agenda.
Members of Congress have demanded that sanctions be imposed on Saudi Arabia over the killing of Khashoggi, who lived in self-imposed exile in the US and wrote critically about Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
The writer, who was a contributor to The Washington Post, vanished on 2 October after entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, where he went to pick up documents for his marriage to his Turkish fiancee.
Turkish officials say that a Saudi team of 15 men tortured, killed and dismembered the writer and that Saudi officials had planned the killing for days.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan delivered a sharp rebuttal of Saudi Arabia’s widely-criticised account that the journalist died accidentally in a brawl.
Saudi officials – after weeks of denials – now concede that he died, but they say it happened accidentally in a fight at the consulate.
Addressing ruling party lawmakers in parliament, Erdogan used the word “murder” 15 times to describe Khashoggi’s death.
“It was a total fiasco,” Trump said. “The process was no good. The execution was no good. And the cover-up, if you want to call it that, was certainly no good.”
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said a move to revoke visas was just a first step.
Visa records are confidential and Pompeo was not more specific about who the revocations would affect, but the State Department later said 21 “Saudi suspects” would have visas revoked or would be declared ineligible to enter the US.
“These penalties will not be the last word on this matter,” Pompeo told reporters at the State Department.
The administration “will continue to hold those responsible accountable”, he added.
“We’re making very clear that the United States does not tolerate this kind of ruthless action to silence Mr Khashoggi, a journalist, with violence. Neither the president or I am happy with this situation.”
Still, Pompeo stressed the strategic importance of the US-Saudi relationship.
“We continue to view as achievable the twin imperative of protecting America and holding accountable those responsible for the killing of Mr. Khashoggi,” Pompeo said.
Former deputy prime minister Lord Heseltine said this morning that Britain and other Western powers must be prepared to “take a stand” over Khashoggi’s murder.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “In this particular case I haven’t the slightest doubt that the Western allies have got to take a stand over the butchering of Mr Khashoggi.
“That’s a scandalous thing to do and we cannot be in a position where we are criticising the Russians for the Salisbury incident and then stand back and allow ourselves to be associated with this event in Turkey.
“At the moment no-one has been able to prove – although they are trying and they may succeed – the connection between the Saudi government and this appalling event, but events are moving in that direction.”
Picture: Reuters/Leah Millis