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Trump calls Saudi Arabia's handling of Khashoggi killing 'worst cover-up ever'

US president says he still needs all the facts on Jamal Khashoggi's killing before he will decide how to respond
'The cover-up was the worst in the history of cover-ups,' Trump told reporters on Tuesday (Reuters/File photo)

The way Saudi Arabia has handled the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi is the "worst cover-up ever," according to Donald Trump.

The US president made the explosive comments on Tuesday after telling reporters he wanted to get all the facts on how Khashoggi was killed at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

“They had a very bad original concept, it was carried out poorly and the cover-up was the worst in the history of cover-ups,” Trump said at the White House.

“They had the worst cover-up ever."

The president insisted he needed all the facts, however, before he would comment on Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's assertion on Tuesday that Khashoggi's murder was premeditated.

Earlier in the day, US Vice-President Mike Pence said Erdogan's statement "flies in the face" of earlier claims made by Saudi Arabia about the Khashoggi case.

"The word from President Erdogan this morning that this brutal murder was premeditated, pre-planned days in advance, flies in the face of earlier assertions that had been made by the Saudi regime and again it underscores the determination of our administration to find out what happened here," Pence said.

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Saudi officials have changed their story repeatedly since Khashoggi, a Saudi insider-turned-critic and prominent Washington Post columnist, disappeared on 2 October after entering their consulate in Istanbul.

For more than two weeks, the Saudis insisted that the journalist left the building minutes after he arrived. However, on Friday, Saudi officials said Khashoggi was killed after a fight broke out inside the consulate.

World leaders and human rights groups have criticised the latest Saudi version of events, however, saying their explanation lacks any credibility, as calls for an independent probe into what happened have grown louder.

But despite his criticism of the Saudi explanation, the US vice-president would not say on Tuesday whether the US believes Saudi Arabia's powerful crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, was involved in what happened to Khashoggi.

"I don't want to speak about any intelligence that I've seen," Pence said during a live interview with the Post when asked whether he believes bin Salman, also known as MBS, is tied to the journalist's murder.

A 'barbaric act'

Meanwhile, Pence described Khashoggi's death as a "tragic murder", a "brutal murder" and a "barbaric act".

He didn't say whether the US would impose sanctions on Saudi Arabia, a longtime ally in the Middle East, however, or on members of the country's royal family.

"We’ll look for ways to hold those accountable who are accountable ... But we’ll also do so in the context of our vital national interests and the important and more than half-century-long relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia," Pence said.

He reiterated Trump's earlier claim that strong US-Saudi ties are essential to bolster the US's fight against terrorism, especially as it pertains to Iran.

"This brutal murder of a journalist, of an innocent man, of a dissident, will not go without an American response, and I expect, without an international response. But we want to find out what happened."

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CIA Director Gina Haspel has been sent to Turkey to meet with investigators probing Khashoggi's murder, Pence said.

He said Haskell will return to the US to brief the president, himself and members of the US administration on what the Turkish investigation has turned up.

Citing four sources familiar with Haspel's mission in Turkey, Reuters reported that the CIA director intends to listen to a purported audio recording of Khashoggi's murder and torture.

Last week, a Turkish source who listened in full to the audio recording told Middle East Eye that Khashoggi was killed in seven minutes and his body was dismembered inside the consulate.

For his part, Trump said he plans to leave it up to Congress to decide what the US should do to hold Saudi Arabia accountable in relation to the case.

On Tuesday, Turkish investigators said they found two suitcases, as well as a computer and paperwork, in a car belonging to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

A Turkish police source told MEE it remains unclear whether the items belonged to Khashoggi, however.