Trump says Saudi should be presumed innocent over disappearance of Jamal Khashoggi

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (left) meets with the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman during his visit in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on Oct 16, 2018. PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON/RIYADH (AFP, REUTERS) - US President Donald Trump pushed back on Tuesday (Oct 16) at global condemnation of Saudi Arabia over the disappearance and suspected murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, saying the kingdom deserved to be presumed innocent.

In an interview with the Associated Press, Trump drew a parallel with the accusations of sexual assault that nearly brought down his Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh.

"Here we go again with, you know, you're guilty until proven innocent," he said.

"I don't like that. We just went through that with Justice Kavanaugh and he was innocent all the way as far as I'm concerned."

"I think we have to find out what happened first," Trump said.

Trump also tweeted that Saudi Arabia's crown prince told him he did not know what had happened in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul where Khashoggi went missing.

"Just spoke with the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia who totally denied any knowledge of what took place in their Turkish Consulate," Trump said on Twitter, referring to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

An insider turned critic of Saudi Arabia's conservative monarchy, Khashoggi was last seen on Oct 2 when he entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul to sort out marriage paperwork. Turkish officials say they believe he was murdered there and his body removed, which the Saudis strongly deny.

His disappearance has strained relations with Washington amid strong pressure in Congress and the US media to prevent the issue from being swept under the carpet.

Trump sent Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to Riyadh to talk directly with Saudi Arabia's royals. Saudi Arabia is one of the closest US partners in a bid to undermine Iran and also a massive client of the US weapons industry.

At the prompting of Trump's son in law and advisor Jared Kushner, his administration has made good relations with Mohammed - portrayed as a Saudi modernizer - a priority. Trump earlier threatened "severe punishment" if it is proven that Khashoggi was killed in the Saudi consulate.

But he also mused aloud that "rogue" elements may have carried out the operation and has ruled out cutting sales of US weapons, of which Saudi Arabia is the largest foreign buyer.

US media outlets reported on Monday that Saudi Arabia will acknowledge Khashoggi was killed in a botched interrogation.

Overnight, Turkish crime scene investigators entered the consulate for the first time since Khashoggi's disappearance and searched the premises for over nine hours.

Turkish investigators were expanding their search to include the Saudi consul's residence in Istanbul and consulate vehicles, Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on Tuesday.

The Khashoggi case poses a dilemma for the United States, Britain and other Western nations. Saudi Arabia is the world's top oil exporter and spends lavishly on Western arms and is a major Sunni Muslim ally.

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