President Donald Trump appeared prepared to ignore the US Congress's Friday deadline to determine who ordered the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi amid new revelations that Saudi Arabia's crown prince spoke of threatening the journalist with a “bullet.”
With pressure mounting in Washington and Riyadh, the US president theoretically had until Friday to designate those responsible for the murder of Khashoggi, who was strangled and dismembered by Saudi agents in the kingdom's consulate in Istanbul on October 2.
The deadline was imposed by Democratic and Republican senators, who wrote the president on October 10 calling for an investigation into the apparent extra-judicial killing.
Under an existing human rights accountability law, the letter gives the president 120 days to designate and punish those responsible.
But no definitive action was expected on Friday from the administration. The State Department said on Thursday that Washington had already taken action over Khashoggi's killing.
A department spokesman pointed to last year's revocation of visas for nearly two dozen Saudi officials and the freezing of assets of 17 others after Khashoggi's murder.
Some members of the US Congress have publicly stated that they suspect the powerful Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was directly responsible for the killing, based on the CIA's conclusions.
The murder was met with international outrage and considerably hurt the image of the crown prince.
In December, the Senate, controlled by Trump's Republican Party, unanimously adopted a resolution naming the crown prince “responsible” for the slaying.
The Trump administration claims it has no compelling evidence of the direct involvement of the young and powerful Saudi leader, although the senators — briefed by intelligence leaders behind closed doors — stressed they remained convinced that the prince known as “MBS” was responsible.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo raised Khashoggi's killing among other issues during a meeting on Thursday with Adel al-Jubeir, the Saudi minister of state for foreign affairs, according to the State Department.
Al-Jubeir reiterated Friday that the prince was not involved in the murder and blaming him would be crossing a “red line.”
“For anyone to think that they can dictate what we should do, what our leadership should do, is preposterous,” al-Jubeir told reporters. “Our leadership is a red line.”
Trump has publicly said that he is not concerned whether Prince Mohammed was involved, saying the Saudi alliance benefits Washington due to the kingdom's major purchases of weapons and its hostility to regional rival Iran.
The deadline coincides with new embarrassing developments for the prince.
The New York Times, citing officials who had seen US intelligence, said that Prince Mohammed had warned in an intercepted conversation to an aide in 2017 that he would go after Khashoggi “with a bullet” if he did not return to Saudi Arabia from the United States.
US intelligence understood that the ambitious 33-year-old heir apparent was ready to kill the journalist, although he may not have literally meant to shoot him, according to the newspaper.
Special UN rapporteur Agnes Callamard said on Thursday after a visit to Turkey that the killing of Khashoggi, who had written critical pieces on Saudi Arabia in the Washington Post, had been “planned and perpetrated” by Saudi officials.
In light of the revelations, Khashoggi's Turkish fiancee said on Friday she hoped pressure from US lawmakers would encourage the Trump adminstration to take a tougher stance on the killing.
Speaking at a press conference in Istanbul, Hatice Cengiz left the door open to a meeting with Trump if certain conditions were met, a softening of her position in December when she rejected an invitation from the US president.
“A visit to the United States could take place in March,” Cengiz said, adding she hoped Trump would have a change of “attitude” about the murder.
“I have hope, not necessarily regarding Trump, but about the fact that the new Congress will follow this case more closely,” she said.