Trump, Pompeo still defending Saudi Arabia over Khashoggi

President Donald Trump said he is not giving cover to Saudi Arabia over the suspected killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, as his top diplomat said Riyadh needed space and time to conduct an investigation.

In separate remarks Wednesday, both Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo continued their effort to create time for leaders in Riyadh to provide an explanation for Khashoggi’s disappearance after he entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2.

“I’m not giving cover at all,” Trump said. “I just want to find out what’s happening.”

“With that being said, Saudi Arabia has been a very important ally of ours in the Middle East,” he added, pointing to a U.S.-Saudi arms deal that he valued at $110 billion, even though just $14.5 billion of that figure has actually begun to materialize.

Speaking in Washingon, Trump said he was “hopeful” the crisis would resolve itself, while Pompeo told reporters in Brussels the U.S. takes the journalist’s suspected killing and dismemberment seriously, even as both men stressed the importance of the U.S.-Saudi relationship.

‘The better side’

“I hope we’re going to be on the better side of the equation,” the president said on Fox Business as he stressed the importance Saudi Arabia in a range of issues at the heart of his policies in the Middle East.

The men spoke as Turkish media published grisly details they said was from an audio recording of Khashoggi’s killing within the Saudi consulate, which reportedly suggests that the father of four was tortured and then killed soon after he entered the consulate.

Trump told reporters Wednesday that the U.S. has asked Turkey for a copy of the audio it claims to have, but the president suggested he has doubts about whether the recording actually exists.

“We have asked for it, if it exists,” the president said. “I’m not sure yet that it exists. Probably does. Possibly does. I’ll have a full report on that from Mike [Pompeo] when he comes back.”

The President made it clear earlier in the day during the interview with Fox that the administration would find it acceptable if King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman were found to be unaware of the killing, even as signs point to close ties between the crown prince and members of group of 15 Saudis believed to be connected to Khashoggi’s disappearance.

‘We need Saudi Arabia’

Several officials CNN has spoken with say the suspected killing could not have happened without the direct knowledge of the 33-year-old crown prince, the kingdom’s de facto ruler who is known by his initials “MBS.”

“We need Saudi Arabia,” the president said, before ticking down a list of items from the fight against terrorism to Iran.

Pompeo said “we need to make sure we are mindful” of the important U.S.-Saudi ties as the administration makes its conclusion about what happened to Khashoggi and evaluates the results of a Saudi investigation into the affair.

“I do think it’s important that everyone keep in their mind that we have lots of important relationships — financial relationships between U.S. and Saudi companies, governmental relationships, things we work on together all across the world, the efforts to” counter Iran, Pompeo said to reporters in Brussels.

“Those are important elements of U.S. national policy that are in American’s best interest and we just need to make sure that we are mindful of that as we approach decisions that the United States government will take when we learn all of the facts associated with whatever may have taken place,” Pompeo said.

Asked why the U.S. seemed to give Saudi Arabia the benefit of the doubt, given the preponderance of signs that there was high-level Saudi involvement, Pompeo said “it is reasonable to give them a handful of days more to complete it, so they get it right, so that it’s thorough and complete.”