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Secretary Of State Pompeo To Meet With Saudi Leaders Over Disappearance Of Journalist


President Trump says people should not leap to judgment and blame Saudi Arabia for the disappearance and suspected death of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. In an interview with the Associated Press, Trump said, quote, "here we go again with you're guilty until proven innocent," a reference there to allegations of sexual assault against Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh.

Meanwhile, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was in Saudi Arabia today to meet with the Saudi king and crown prince for photo ops and handshakes and smiles even as Khashoggi has not been seen since he walked into the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, two weeks ago. Turkey says the Saudis killed him. But after his meetings, Pompeo said Saudi leaders told him they have no knowledge of what happened.

NPR's Michele Kelemen is traveling with Pompeo, which means she, too, is in Saudi Arabia's capital, Riyadh. Hey, Michele.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Hi there, Mary Louise.

KELLY: So I'm going to get to the substance of these talks today in a minute, but start with the optics. They are tricky. I mentioned friendly handshakes and smiles. Meanwhile, the agenda is to discuss an alleged murder plot by the Saudis.

KELEMEN: Yeah, it was kind of striking because, you know, on the face of it, it looked like this very typical visit by a secretary of state going to see the king at his palace, a brief stop at the foreign ministry and a lot of time with the crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, who's this young, very powerful figure here. We're told that the conversations have been direct and candid, you know, diplo-speak for quite tough. But you wouldn't know it by watching these men greeting each other in front of the cameras and talking about how important this relationship is.

KELLY: All right, talk about the substance. What did they say to each other in these direct and candid talks?

KELEMEN: Well, they've - the U.S. officials have said very little about that. I mean, they say that Trump sent Pompeo here to convey the message that it's really important for the Saudis to conduct a thorough, transparent investigation into the disappearance of this Washington Post columnist. U.S. officials haven't weighed in about all of these reports in the news that the Saudis are now portraying this as a - like, a interrogation gone horribly wrong.

We don't know exactly how the Saudis have been spinning this with Pompeo in private or if he believes them, but we do know that President Trump seems to, at least according to his Twitter feed. Trump says he spoke by phone to the crown prince, who was with Pompeo at the time. And he says that the crown prince - and this is a quote on Twitter - "totally denied any knowledge of what took place" in the consulate.

KELLY: I mean, it does seem as though Pompeo has been sent to walk this really fine line. President Trump has threatened severe punishment - his words - to whoever's responsible for Jamal Khashoggi's disappearance, maybe murder. But there's also a lot more at stake here and in the wider U.S.-Saudi relationship.

KELEMEN: Yeah. And this country, Mary Louise, is really key to the Mideast strategy of the Trump administration. There are big U.S. arms deals at stake. These - U.S. policy on Iran is vital here. The sanctions are going back into force, and the U.S. needs the Saudis to keep the oil markets stable. And then on the other hand, the administration is facing a lot of pressure from Congress. Members of Congress are outraged over this apparent murder in the consulate in Istanbul and over the Saudi conduct in the war in Yemen. So I think you're totally right. The administration is trying to walk this very fine line.

KELLY: Secretary Pompeo is headed next, which means you are headed next, to the capital of Turkey, to Ankara. What's the agenda there?

KELEMEN: Well, he's going to be meeting with the foreign minister there. Obviously Turkey is also a really important ally and a country that wants to get to the bottom of this, too. Police in Turkey today were searching the Saudi consulate.

KELLY: Right.

KELEMEN: And they say they found evidence that the Saudi journalist was killed there. So it's going to be to follow up on those investigations, too.

KELLY: That's NPR's Michele Kelemen reporting from Saudi Arabia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.