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Under pressure, Pompeo insists US 'not covering up' Khashoggi murder

White House missed deadline to report its findings to Congress about who's responsible for Saudi journalist's killing
The White House is under pressure to hold Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman accountable for Khashoggi's murder (Reuters/File photo)

Mike Pompeo has said the United States is not covering up Jamal Khashoggi's murder, only days after the White House missed a deadline to reveal its findings about who killed the Saudi journalist.

Speaking during a visit to Hungary on Monday, the US secretary of state said Washington intends to take more action to hold those responsible for Khashoggi's murder accountable.

"America is not covering up for a murder," Pompeo said.

"America has taken more action in response to the tragic murder of Jamal Khashoggi and will continue to take more action [and] continue our investigation. We are working diligently on that."

"The president has been very clear, couldn’t have been more clear," he continued, "as we get additional information we’ll continue to hold all of those responsible accountable."

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Pompeo's comments come as Donald Trump's administration is facing renewed calls to hold top Saudi leaders accountable for Khashoggi's murder, after the White House ignored a deadline to submit a report about the case.

Khashoggi, a Saudi government critic and prominent Washington Post columnist, was murdered by Saudi government agents inside the country's Istanbul consulate on 2 October.

Late last year, US politicians triggered the Magnitsky Act, requiring the president to identify the perpetrators of Khashoggi's murder and submit a report to Congress within 120 days.

That deadline came and went on Friday, however, with a Trump administration official telling US news outlets that "the president maintains his discretion to decline to act on congressional committee requests when appropriate".

On Friday, a state department official said Pompeo had briefed US lawmakers on the murder investigation but gave no other details.

Bipartisan rebuke

The White House's inaction was immediately slammed by US lawmakers, including members of Trump's own Republican party.

Congressman Michael McCaul, the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said he was "deeply troubled" by the letter he received from the Trump administration regarding the Khashoggi case, adding it did not meet the requirements set out by the Magnitsky Act.

"Jamal's murder was appalling. The lesson of this terrible event needs to be that intimidation and violence by any government against peaceful dissent will be met with strong disapproval by responsible nations.

"Everyone involved in this gruesome crime must be identified and held accountable," McCaul said in a statement.

Patrick Leahy, a Democratic senator from Vermont, said in a statement on Friday that if the administration ignores the Magnitsky Act, it would "share the blame for attempting to cover up the crime and for helping those responsible to evade justice".

"It is long past time that the President stop shielding those who brutally murdered Jamal Khashoggi, an American resident and journalist," Leahy said.

However, missing the Magnitsky deadline appears to be the latest attempt by the Trump administration to shield top Saudi rulers from being held accountable for Khashoggi's murder.

Pompeo even travelled to Saudi Arabia in November to hand Saudi rulers a plan to help them overcome international pressure after the assassination, a Saudi source previously told Middle East Eye.

Continued support for Riyadh

Trump himself has also vowed to remain a steadfast supporter of Saudi Arabia - and the country's de facto leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman - despite calls from lawmakers, human rights groups and press freedom advocates to investigate the killing.

The CIA previously concluded that bin Salman, known as MBS, ordered Khashoggi's murder.

That was echoed by the US Senate, which unanimously voted in favour of a resolution last year that stated unequivocally that the chamber "believes Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is responsible for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi".

'This amounts to the Trump Administration aiding in the cover up of a murder ... Congress will not relent in its efforts to hold Saudi Arabia accountable for this heinous crime'

- Tim Kaine, US senator

Saudi officials, meanwhile, have repeatedly denied MBS was involved in the crime.

In an interview that aired on CBS's "Face the Nation" programme on Sunday, Adel al-Jubeir, the Saudi minister of state for foreign affairs, said the murder was carried out by Saudi officials "acting outside their scope of authority".

Jubeir also said 11 people have been charged with the crime.

But the Saudi version of events hasn't appeased widespread calls for accountability, with US lawmakers vowing to continue to apply pressure on Riyadh despite the Trump administration's stated intention to remain a strong ally of the Gulf kingdom.

In a statement issued over the weekend, Democratic Senator Tim Kaine said Khashoggi "was brutally murdered and dismembered by the Saudi government".

The Trump administration "has blatantly turned a blind eye to this crime", despite the CIA's conclusion that MBS personally ordered the journalist's murder, Kaine said.

"This amounts to the Trump Administration aiding in the cover-up of a murder. America should never descend to this level of moral bankruptcy," he said. "Congress will not relent in its efforts to hold Saudi Arabia accountable for this heinous crime."

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