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U.S. Seeks Answers on Jamal Khashoggi Killing as Mnuchin Meets With Saudi Prince

WASHINGTON — The Trump administration, confronted with further evidence of a cover-up in the killing of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi, veered on Monday between defending the value of its alliance with Saudi Arabia and pressing the Saudi government for answers.

The White House sent the director of the C.I.A., Gina Haspel, to Istanbul to help the Turkish government with its investigation into the killing, according to an official. But in Riyadh, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin held a wide-ranging meeting with Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, who is suspected of playing a role in the killing of Mr. Khashoggi, a Saudi dissident.

Mr. Mnuchin, who canceled his attendance at this week’s Saudi investment conference in the wake of Mr. Khashoggi’s killing at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, traded views with Prince Mohammed on economic ties and counterterrorism initiatives, as well as on the investigation into Mr. Khashoggi’s death, according to a Treasury Department spokesman.

There are also fresh doubts about the Saudi government’s claim that Mr. Khashoggi was strangled accidentally after he got into a fist fight with 15 Saudi operatives, with video of a body double surfacing on Monday. A Saudi operative donned Mr. Khashoggi’s clothes after he was killed and left the building to create a misleading trail of evidence, surveillance images leaked by Turkey show.

“I am not satisfied with what I have heard,” President Trump said to reporters before flying to a rally in Texas.

But Mr. Trump reiterated the value of the $ 110 billion arms deal he announced with Saudi Arabia, as well as other American business ties with the kingdom. “I do not want to lose the investment being made in our country,” he said.

The meeting between Mr. Mnuchin and Prince Mohammed was unplanned and came at the request of the Saudis, according to a person familiar with the situation. But it added to the portrait of a White House eager to move on from the killing of Mr. Khashoggi to a more routine relationship with its key Arab ally.

The timing, as well as the unusual decision to send Ms. Haspel to Turkey, underscored that the furor was far from over. On Tuesday, Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has promised to give a full, unvarnished account of what happened to Mr. Khashoggi.

Earlier in the day, Mr. Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, who has been the key contact with Prince Mohammed, likened the doubts about the truthfulness of Saudi officials to the run-of-the-mill perfidy that the White House deals with in Washington.

“Every day we deal with people who are trying to deceive us in different ways,” Mr. Kushner said during a CNN forum in Manhattan. “But our job is to see through it, but also to stay focused on what’s best for the American people.”

The administration has shifted its tone repeatedly on the Saudi response to the killing. But Mr. Trump has stopped short of pointing a finger at Prince Mohammed and has steadfastly defended the 33-year-old heir to the Saudi throne, whom the White House has cultivated and views as a critical partner in its efforts to isolate Iran.

Mr. Mnuchin was the first senior American official to meet face to face with Prince Mohammed since the Saudi government confirmed on Friday that Mr. Khashoggi was killed. It had earlier insisted that he left the consulate and disappeared afterward.

The Saudi Foreign Ministry lost no time in publicizing the session, posting a photograph on Twitter of Mr. Mnuchin sitting across from Prince Mohammed in an opulent reception room, listening while his host made a point.

Prince Mohammed stressed “the importance of Saudi-US strategic partnership, where it holds an important role in the future in line with the Kingdom’s #Vision2030,” the tweet said, referring to the prince’s ambitious program to modernize his kingdom.

A Treasury Department spokesman said the meeting was focused on combating terrorist financing and corralling Iran’s influences in the region and that the two men discussed the Khashoggi investigation.

Mr. Mnuchin withdrew from speaking at an investor conference taking place this week in Riyadh because of the circumstances surrounding Mr. Khashoggi’s death but said he still planned to meet with Saudi officials to discuss economic issues and joint efforts to stop illicit terrorist financing.

In an interview on Sunday in Jerusalem, Mr. Mnuchin said that Saudi Arabia needed to do more to demonstrate that Mr. Khashoggi’s killing was unintentional. But he defended his decision to travel to Riyadh and meet with Saudi officials, saying his trip was aimed at reinforcing ties at a critical moment, as the United States tries to ratchet up pressure on Iran.

Representative Adam B. Schiff of California, the senior Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee who over the weekend said he believed Prince Mohammed was culpable in Mr. Khashoggi’s killing, criticized Mr. Mnuchin’s decision to meet with the royal.

“If their talks were about financial matters, I certainly think they should not have gone forward,” Mr. Schiff said in a telephone interview. “If they were about counterterrorism issues, it’s hard to believe how fruitful those could be.”

The meeting occurred hours after Mr. Kushner said the White House was still engaged in “fact-finding” into Mr. Khashoggi’s death but that it had its “eyes wide open” as the investigations into his killing continued.

The grounds for skepticism only seemed to deepen on Monday. The revelation that the Saudis deployed a body double added to the multiplying doubts about the Saudi explanation of how Mr. Khashoggi, 59, died.

It suggested there was a premeditated plan to make Mr. Khashoggi disappear, through death or abduction, and to cover it up — possibly contradicting the Saudi insistence that his killing was the accidental result of an altercation.

Mr. Trump, in an interview with USA Today, called it “a plot gone awry.”

On Monday, CNN showed images, leaked by the Turkish authorities, that showed the body double strolling around Istanbul, apparently wearing Mr. Khashoggi’s clothes. The man was identified as Mustafa al-Madani, described in his now-deleted Facebook profile as a Saudi government engineer.

Mr. Kushner, a key adviser on the Mideast peace process, has developed a strong relationship with the Saudi crown prince.

He has talked to Prince Mohammed several times in the last week, and has come under criticism amid reports that he has advised Mr. Trump to wait before jumping to conclusions about Mr. Khashoggi’s death.

“I think that, again, the president is focused on what’s good for America, what are strategic interests,” Mr. Kushner said. “Where do we share interests with other countries — let’s work toward those.”

He made the remarks in his first televised interview since the 2016 election, conducted by the political activist Van Jones, at the “Citizen by CNN” forum in Manhattan.

Mr. Kushner said that the president was mindful of getting answers, but he noted that the Saudis have been a strategic ally of the United States.

When Mr. Jones noted that even Mr. Trump had said that there had been “deception” and “lies” from the Saudis in relation to the Khashoggi case, Mr. Kushner offered a more muted response.

“We’re getting facts in from multiple places,” he said. “Once those facts come in, the secretary of state will work with our national security team to help us determine what we want to believe.”

When Mr. Kushner was asked what advice he personally had given the crown prince, he replied, “To be transparent.” He added, “The world is watching.”

Dismissing criticism of his ties to the crown prince, Mr. Kushner said he did not pay attention to his critics. At another point, he said he heeded criticism only if it was from someone he respected.

Source: NYT > World

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