Saudi Arabia acknowledged Friday that dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi was killed inside its consulate in Istanbul, claiming he died from a chokehold during a physical altercation.
The Saudi government said in a statement that Khashoggi got in an argument with people inside the consulate when a “brawl” erupted that led to his death, an explanation that immediately provoked scrutiny in Washington.
Eighteen Saudi nationals have been arrested and are under investigation in connection with the case, the kingdom said in the statement put out by state-run media channels around 1 a.m. Saturday in Riyadh.
Five top officials were also fired following the initial investigation. The ousted group includes Saud al-Qahtani, a top adviser to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and deputy intelligence chief Maj. Gen. Ahmed al-Assiri.
The announcement marks the first time the Saudi government has acknowledged that Khashoggi died inside its consulate after he was seen entering the facility on Oct. 2 to obtain documents for his marriage.
The incident involving Khashoggi, a Virginia resident and critic of Saudi leadership who served as an opinion contributor to The Washington Post, has provoked international outrage and sparked a diplomatic crisis with the U.S.
President Trump praised the move by the Saudi government on Friday as “a great first step” and said he would wait to decide how, or if, he would punish the Saudis.
“It’s a big step. It’s a lot of people involved,” Trump said while speaking at a roundtable with major defense contractors in Arizona.
Asked if he finds the Saudi explanation credible, Trump responded, “I do,” adding that he doesn’t think the kingdom’s leadership lied to him about Khashoggi’s fate.
“Again, it’s early,” he continued. “We haven’t finished our review or investigation. But I think it’s a very important first step and it happened sooner than people thought it would happen.”
Those comments came after the White House issued a statement Friday night acknowledging the actions taken by Saudi Arabia while pledging to “closely follow the international investigations into this tragic incident and advocate for justice.”
The Saudis’ latest account admitted that a “cover up” took place in the days following Khashoggi’s death, when the government said the journalist left the consulate, but distanced the effort from Prince Mohammed and other members of the royal family.
It also did not answer key questions, such as the location of Khashoggi’s body, or address Turkish claims the Saudi team that accosted Khashoggi included security personnel with close ties to Prince Mohammed and a well-connected forensic doctor carrying a bone saw.
The explanation is unlikely to defuse a growing political crisis that has ensnared the Trump administration, which put a close relationship between Riyadh and Washington at the center of its foreign policy strategy.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who has emerged as an outspoken critic of Saudi Arabia in Congress while remaining a Trump ally, tweeted that “to say that I am skeptical of the new Saudi narrative about Mr. Khashoggi is an understatement.”
“First we were told Mr. Khashoggi supposedly left the consulate and there was blanket denial of any Saudi involvement,” he wrote. “Now, a fight breaks out and he’s killed in the consulate, all without knowledge of Crown Prince. It’s hard to find this latest ‘explanation’ as credible.”
One potential problem for U.S. officials could be that Prince Mohammed is leading the full investigation into Khashoggi’s killing, despite accusations that he may have ordered the operation that led to the journalist’s death.
Mohammed has been the linchpin of the U.S.-Saudi alliance during the Trump administration, forming close ties with Trump’s son-in-law and senior White House adviser Jared Kushner.
For days, Trump has sent mixed signals about how he plans to respond to Saudi Arabia over Khashoggi.
The president acknowledged Thursday that it “certainly looks” like Khashoggi was dead after he previously refused to speculate on the situation. Trump also threatened “very severe” consequences if it was found the Saudis killed him.
The president said Friday night he would prefer “some form of sanction” against the Saudis and added that he would involve Congress in his decision-making process.
The president, however, reiterated he does not want to nix billions of dollars in Saudi arms purchases, arguing it would hurt U.S. businesses and jeopardize the two nations’ alliance.
“I would prefer that we don’t use as retribution cancelling $110 billion worth of work,” he said at the defense-contractor roundtable.
Trump claimed without offering evidence that those arms deals support more than 1 million jobs in the U.S.
Trump had previously repeated Saudi Arabia’s denials of involvement and even speculated that “rogue killers” might have been responsible for Khashoggi’s death, but that stance became untenable as new details emerged regarding the journalist’s killing.
Saudi Arabia decided to come forward with its new account after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo held meetings with Saudi officials earlier this week, during which he pressed them to conduct a full probe into the Khashoggi case.
Pompeo said Thursday that Saudi Arabia would have “a few more days” to complete its investigation.
Saudi Arabia has faced mounting pressure to explain what happened to Khashoggi, a Saudi national who recently fled to the U.S. after making critical statements about the kingdom’s leadership.
Saudi officials had repeatedly said that Khashoggi left the consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2 and claimed they had no knowledge of what happened to him before acknowledging his death on Friday.
That explanation had been at odds with Turkish allegations that Khashoggi was tortured, killed and dismembered by a team of 15 Saudi operatives who flew to Turkey to meet him.
Turkish officials say they have an audio recording of the incident backing up their claims, but that has not yet been confirmed by the U.S.
BY JORDAN FABIAN AND CHRIS MILLS RODRIGO