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Trump suggests "rogue killers" could be behind journalist's disappearance

Last Updated Oct 15, 2018 1:52 PM EDT

President Trump tweeted Monday morning that Saudi Arabia's King Salman in a phone call vehemently denied any knowledge about what happened to Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, adding that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is "immediately" heading to meet with the king. Pompeo boarded a plane en route to Saudi Arabia midday Monday.

Mr. Trump, who repeatedly said Salman denies any knowledge of Khashoggi, said perhaps "rogue killers" are responsible for the journalist's fate. But, the president added, who knows. 

The Trump administration has sustained criticism in recent days since Khashoggi's disappearance for its reluctance to criticize Saudi Arabia, and for Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin's intention to still attend a conference in Saudi Arabia when many private sector entities have backed out. Mr. Trump did tell CBS News' "60 Minutes" there would be "severe punishment" if Khashoggi is dead and the Saudis are found responsible. And yet, the president's emphasis has been that the Saudi king denies any involvement. 

"His denial to me could not have been stronger," Mr. Trump told reporters before leaving for Florida and Georgia, adding later, "The denial was not only a denial, it was a very firm denial." 

The Post reported that Turkey claims to have audio of Khashoggi's death after he entered the Saudi embassy in Turkey earlier this month. Mr. Trump, as he did in a tweet Monday, has highlighted that Khashoggi is not a U.S. citizen.

"Just spoke to the King of Saudi Arabia who denies any knowledge of whatever may have happened 'to our Saudi Arabian citizen.' He said that they are working closely with Turkey to find answer. I am immediately sending our Secretary of State to meet with King!" the president tweeted Monday. 

Much is at stake in the U.S.-Saudi relationship. Mr. Trump stands by the billions of dollars worth of U.S. arms sales to the Saudis, pointing out that such deals mean jobs for Americans and a boost for the American economy. Mr. Trump told "60 Minutes" that he didn't want to halt the arms sales. 

"I tell you what I don't want to do. Boeing, Lockheed, Raytheon, all these com-- I don't want to hurt jobs," Mr. Trump said. "I don't want to lose an order like that. There are other ways of-- punishing, to use a word that's a pretty harsh word, but it's true."

Republicans on Capitol Hill have had much harsher words for the Saudis. Sen. Marco Rubio told CBS News' "Face the Nation" Sunday that Congress won't be sticking with the Saudis if they are responsible for Khashoggi's death. 

"I can just tell you that in Congress right now, there is no pro-Saudi element that's going to stick with our relationship with Saudi Arabia as it's currently structured if, in fact, they lured this man into this consulate, killed him, and then cut up his body and send a team to go into that country to kill him in the first place," Rubio said. 

A National Security Council spokesperson said the State Department is "in ongoing contact" with Turkish and Saudi counterparts. 

"The Department of State is in ongoing contact with Turkish and Saudi counterparts over this issue," the spokesperson said. "President Trump spoke with King Salman of Saudi Arabia today. He also asked Secretary of State Pompeo to travel immediately to Riyadh and then to Turkey to meet with King Salman and Turkish officials. It is absolutely essential that Turkish authorities, with full and transparent support from the government of Saudi Arabia, are able to conduct a thorough investigation and officially release the results of that investigation when concluded. We support Turkish investigators' efforts and are not going to prejudge the outcome of the official investigation. We stand ready to assist."

— CBS News' Olivia Gazis contributed to this report 

  • Kathryn Watson

    Kathryn Watson is a politics reporter for CBS News Digital.