President Trump on Tuesday criticized people blaming Saudi Arabia for the disappearance of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, saying they are prejudging the case.
“Here we go again with, you know, you’re guilty until proven innocent. I don’t like that,” Trump said during an interview with The Associated Press.
The president likened the global outcry against Saudi Arabia to the controversy surrounding Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, who was accused of sexual assault during his confirmation process.
“We just went through that with Justice Kavanaugh and he was innocent all the way as far as I’m concerned,” he said. “So we have to find out what happened.”
Trump’s latest comments are the furthest he has gone to defend the Saudi government from charges that it is responsible for the dissident journalist’s fate.
The president earlier Tuesday spoke to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman and vouched for his claimthat he has no knowledge of what happened to Khashoggi. But Trump said that the prince has agreed to “expand” an investigation into the incident.
Trump told the AP he hopes the Saudi investigation concludes in “less than a week.”
Khashoggi, a critic of Salman, has not been seen since entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2. Turkish officials say the journalist was killed and dismembered inside the compound.
After speaking to the Saudi king on Monday, Trump said it is possible that “rogue killers” were responsible for Khashoggi’s disappearance.
The president said in the interview Tuesday that his comments were based on a “feeling” he got from the Saudi king and not a specific claim by Salman.
After meeting with Saudi leaders in Riyadh, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said they “strongly denied any knowledge of what took place” with Khashoggi but made a “serious commitment” to hold accountable anyone found to have been involved in the journalist’s disappearance.
At least four suspects identified by Turkey in the Khashoggi case have ties to Mohammed, according to The New York Times, a factor that could undermine any Saudi attempt to pin the journalist’s disappearance on rogue elements.
Trump’s fiery comments are a sign he views the criticism of the Saudis as damaging to himself and his administration.
Trump picked Saudi Arabia as the destination for his first foreign trip as president and has formed a close partnership with Mohammed’s government in the hopes of isolating Iran and forging a Middle East peace deal.
Trump’s remarks, however, are likely to spark a backlash on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers in both parties are pressuring the president to come down hard on Riyadh in response to Khashoggi’s disappearance.
Some have called on Trump to suspend roughly $110 billion in arms deal with the kingdom or impose sanctions on Saudi officials deemed responsible. The president has balked at stopping the arms deals, saying it would hurt U.S. jobs.
Trump also said that Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin still planned to travel to Saudi Arabia for an investment conference, but could change his plans based on the results of the investigation.
“I think we’ll also be guided by what other countries are doing” if the Saudis are implicated, Trump said.