WASHINGTON >> Saudi Arabia was preparing an alternative explanation of the fate of a dissident journalist today, saying he died at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul two weeks ago in an interrogation gone wrong, according to a person familiar with the kingdom’s plans. In Washington, President Donald Trump echoed the possibility that Jamal Khashoggi was the victim of “rogue killers.”
The shifting storyline defied earlier details that have emerged in the case, including signs that he was murdered and dismembered. Among other things, Turkish officials have said, an autopsy specialist carrying a bone saw was among 15 Saudi operatives who flew in and out of Istanbul the day Khashoggi disappeared.
The new explanation seemed intended to ease the political crisis that Khashoggi’s disappearance has created for Saudi Arabia. The new story could also defuse some criticism of the Trump administration, which has refused to back down from billions of dollars in weapons sales to the kingdom and as of today was still planning to attend a glittering Saudi investment forum next week.
And it could help Turkey, where a shaky economy would benefit from a financial infusion that low-interest loans from Riyadh could provide.
But the theory was widely dismissed among Khashoggi’s friends, human rights advocates and some on Capitol Hill, who noted that Saudi officials had denied his death for two weeks — including assertions by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman last week and the king himself Monday.
“Been hearing the ridiculous ‘rogue killers’ theory was where the Saudis would go with this,” Sen. Christopher Murphy, D-Conn., wrote in a Twitter post. “Absolutely extraordinary they were able to enlist the President of the United States as their PR agent to float it.”
Trump spoke with King Salman of Saudi Arabia on Monday morning in a 20-minute phone call. The president said the king denied any knowledge of what had happened to Khashoggi, a columnist for the Washington Post who had been critical of the crown prince.
“It sounded to me like maybe these could have been rogue killers — who knows,” Trump said, speaking to reporters as he headed to visit areas ravaged by Hurricane Michael.