Trump gives Saudi Arabia benefit of doubt in journalist's disappearance

By Makini Brice and Leah Millis

By Makini Brice and Leah Millis

WASHINGTON/RIYADH (Reuters) - U.S. President Donald Trump gave Saudi Arabia the benefit of the doubt in the disappearance of journalist Jamal Khashoggi even as senior U.S. lawmakers pointed the finger at the Saudi leadership and Western pressure mounted on Riyadh to provide answers.

"Here we go again with you're guilty until proven innocent," Trump told the Associated Press in an interview on Tuesday.

Trump had used a similar formulation of language when his nomination of Brett Kavanuagh to the U.S. Supreme Court ran into trouble in the Senate after several women came forward to accuse Kavanaugh of sexual misconduct.

Earlier, Trump said Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman denied knowing what happened in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul where Khashoggi vanished two weeks ago after going there to collect documents he needed for his planned marriage.

Turkish officials have said they believe the Saudi journalist was murdered there and his body removed, which the Saudis have strongly denied. Khashoggi was a U.S. resident who wrote columns for the Washington Post and he was critical of the Saudi government, calling for reforms.

"Just spoke with the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia who totally denied any knowledge of what took place in their Turkish Consulate," Trump wrote on Twitter. Trump also wrote that the crown prince "told me that he has already started, and will rapidly expand, a full and complete investigation into this matter. Answers will be forthcoming shortly."

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who met with Saudi King Salman, the crown prince and foreign minister, said his assessment from the meetings was that there was "a serious commitment to determine all the facts and ensure accountability, including accountability for Saudi Arabia's senior leaders or senior officials.

The remarks reflect a dilemma for the United States, Britain and other Western nations in how to respond to an authoritarian monarchy that does not typically bow to foreign pressures. Saudi Arabia is the world's top oil exporter, spends lavishly on Western arms and is a major Sunni Muslim ally.

U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican close to Trump on some issues, called the crown prince a "toxic" figure, adding, "He can never be a world leader on the world stage."

"I've been their biggest defender on the floor of the United States Senate," Graham said. "This guy is a wrecking ball. He had this guy murdered in a consulate in Turkey and to expect me to ignore it. I feel used and abused," Graham said.

U.S. media outlets reported on Monday that Saudi Arabia will acknowledge Khashoggi was killed in a botched interrogation.

Trump speculated on Monday that "rogue killers" could be behind the disappearance but gave no evidence to back up that theory.

(Reporting by Makini Brice and Leah Millis; Additional reporting by Yesim Dikmen and Sarah Dadouch and Bulent Usta in Istanbul, Orhan Coskun, Gulsen Solaker, Ece Toksabay and Tuvan Gumrukcu in Ankara, John Revill in Basel, Oliver Hirt in Zurich, Lawrence White in London and Jonathan Spicer, Lesley Wroughton, Tim Ahmann and Susan Heavey in Washington; Writing by Alistair Bell; Editing by Yara Bayoumy, Will Dunham and Grant McCool)