By Ali Kucukgocmen and Susan Heavey
ISTANBUL/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump on Thursday said the authorities were getting closer to understanding the disappearance of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, as Turkish investigators prepared to enter the Saudi consulate in Istanbul where he was last seen.
“I have to find out what happened … and we’re probably getting closer than you might think,” Trump said in an interview on the Fox News “Fox & Friends” program.
Global pressure has mounted on close U.S. ally Saudi Arabia over the whereabouts of Khashoggi, a prominent critic of Saudi policies, who entered the consulate to get documents for his planned marriage. His Turkish fiancée, Hatice Cengiz, who was waiting outside, said he never re-appeared.
Turkish sources have said they believe Khashoggi was killed inside the building and his body removed, allegations that Riyadh dismisses as baseless.
A team of investigators is preparing to go into the consulate, where Khashoggi was last seen entering nine days ago, a Turkish security official told Reuters.
“Now, they are waiting the final permission to enter the consulate,” the official said, following an initial offer from Saudi authorities. It was unclear when that might happen.
In the interview, Trump said the United States was working with Turkey and Saudi Arabia, adding, “we have investigators over there”.
But three U.S. law enforcement sources said that because Khashoggi is not an American citizen and disappeared outside the country, the FBI has no automatic jurisdiction to get involved in the case and could only become involved if requested by a foreign government such as Turkey.
Trump told reporters a day earlier that he had raised Khashoggi’s case with Saudi Arabia “at the highest level” and more than once in recent days and said he and his wife expect to invite Cengiz to the White House soon.
Asked about the invitation, Cengiz told Turkish state broadcaster TRT on Thursday: “I am not thinking anything on this subject at the moment.”
In an op-ed in the Washington Post on Tuesday, she implored the president and first lady to “help shed light on Jamal’s disappearance.”
Trump made Saudi Arabia the first stop on his first foreign trip as president in May 2017, but in recent weeks has appeared to sour a bit on Riyadh, complaining directly to King Salman about the cost of American support for the Saudi military and for OPEC oil price increases.
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said his country was worried about Khashoggi’s disappearance and cannot remain silent, in comments quoted by Hurriyet newspaper on Thursday.
“We are investigating all aspects of the event. It is not possible for us to remain silent regarding such an occurrence, because it is not a common occurrence,” he said.
He also questioned assertions by Saudi authorities that the consulate does not have footage of Khashoggi leaving the building as the mission’s security cameras only provide live footage and do not record images.
“Is it possible for there to be no camera systems at the Saudi Arabia consulate, where the event took place?,” Erdogan said.
Pro-government Turkish daily Sabah on Wednesday published preliminary evidence from investigators it said identified a 15-member Saudi intelligence team involved in Khashoggi’s disappearance.
One is a forensic expert who has worked at the Saudi Interior Ministry for 20 years, according to a LinkedIn profile. Other names and photos match officers in the Saudi Army and Air Force, as identified by previous Saudi media reports and in one case a Facebook profile.
The Saudi consulate referred Reuters to authorities in Riyadh who have not responded to questions about the 15 Saudis, who Sabah said travelled on diplomatic passports, arriving in Istanbul hours before Khashoggi disappeared.
Khashoggi’s disappearance is likely to further deepen divisions between Turkey and Saudi Arabia. Relations were already strained after Turkey sent troops to the Gulf state of Qatar last year in a show of support after its Gulf neighbours, including Saudi Arabia, imposed an embargo on Doha.
The incident has been largely absent from Saudi media, but on Thursday Saudi-owned newspaper Asharq al Awsat cited an unnamed source who said the kingdom was being targeted by “those who try to exploit the reality of the disappearance”.
Erdogan, whose AK Party is rooted in political Islam, also supported a government in Egypt led by the Muslim Brotherhood, which Saudi Arabia has designated a terrorist movement.
(Additional reporting by Sarah Dadouch in Istanbul and Doina Chiacu in Washington; Writing by Stephen Kalin; Editing by Dominic Evans, David Dolan, William Maclean)