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Trump says it 'certainly looks' like Jamal Khashoggi is dead

US president's comments mark major shift, as he again warns Saudis face 'severe' consequences if found liable for journalist's death
The New York Times reported that Saudi Arabia may blame its intelligence chief, General Ahmed al-Assiri, for giving the order to kill Khashoggi (AFP)

US President Donald Trump said it "certainly looks" as though Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi is dead.

“It certainly looks that way to me,” he told reporters after leaving Air Force One on Thursday.

When asked about the potential consequences Saudi Arabia may face if its officials are proven to have played a role in his death, Trump said: "It will have to be very severe."

The remarks came as the New York Times (NYT) reported that Saudi Arabia may blame its intelligence chief, General Ahmed al-Assiri, for giving the order to kill Khashoggi.

Trump’s comments are a stunning shift from the line the president and other top White House officials have stuck to in recent days, as the US faced mounting pressure to get to the bottom of the prominent Saudi journalist's disappearance.

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According to an ABC news report late Thursday, Turkey shared a recording of Khashoggi's death with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo when he met with officials in Istanbul.

Still, the State Department denied that Pompeo listened to the audio tape. "The secretary addressed this yesterday. He has not heard a tape," spokeswoman Heather Nauert said.

Earlier on Thursday, Pompeo said he told Trump that the US should give the Saudis "a few more days" to complete their investigation into Khashoggi's case "so we can get a complete understanding" of the facts.

After that, "we can make a decision about how the United States should respond to the issues surrounding Mr Khashoggi," he told reporters.

Saudi Arabia 'to blame Assiri'

As the global fallout over Khashoggi's disappearance deepens, US and Saudi officials have sought to shield the crown prince from responsibility.

Shifting the blame to Assiri would help MBS avoid taking any responsibility for what happened, the NYT reported.

Assiri is seen as being close to MBS and has worked as the spokesman for the country's military campaign in Yemen, which was the crown prince's brainchild (AFP)

Assiri is seen as being close to MBS and has worked as the spokesman for the country's military campaign in Yemen, which was the crown prince's brainchild.

Unidentified officials with knowledge of the Saudi plans told the Times that Assiri wields considerable power to approve missions involving lower-ranking Saudi personnel.

The officials went on to say that MBS approved a mission to capture Khashoggi alive, but that Assiri either overstepped his bounds or misunderstood the instructions.

'Here we go again'

Trump had previously dismissed claims of Saudi Arabia's involvement and compared the situation to sexual assault allegations against now-US Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh.

“Here we go again with you’re guilty until proven innocent,” he told the Associated Press on Tuesday.

Earlier this week, Pompeo was dispatched to Riyadh, where he met Saudi King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) in Riyadh to discuss the Khashoggi case.

Pompeo said on Tuesday that Saudi leaders strongly denied any knowledge of what took place in their Istanbul consulate and promised a serious and credible investigation.

"During each of today's meetings, the Saudi leadership strongly denied any knowledge of what took place in their consulate in Istanbul," Pompeo said in a statement from Saudi Arabia.

"My assessment from these meetings is that there is serious commitment to determine all the facts and ensure accountability, including accountability for Saudi Arabia’s senior leaders or senior officials."

Khashoggi, a Saudi insider-turned-critic, was last seen on 2 October entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Turkish officials say they believe he was killed inside the building.

Saudi officials have vehemently denied any involvement in Khashoggi's disappearance and say that he left the consulate soon after arriving. 

However, they have not presented any evidence to corroborate their claim and say that video cameras at the consulate were not recording at the time.