WASHINGTON — The Trump administration revoked the visas Tuesday of some Saudi officials implicated in the killing of writer Jamal Khashoggi in its first punitive measure against its longtime Middle East partner, as President Donald Trump denounced the kingdom for one of the "worst cover-ups in the history of cover-ups."
Shortly after Trump made the comment, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the administration was moving to revoke the visas of Saudi government and intelligence agents suspected of involvement in the death of Khashoggi.
Visa records are confidential and Pompeo was not more specific about who the revocations would affect, but the State Department later said 21 "Saudi suspects" would have visas revoked or would be declared ineligible to enter the U.S.
"These penalties will not be the last word on this matter," Pompeo told reporters at the State Department. The administration "will continue to hold those responsible accountable. We're making very clear that the United States does not tolerate this kind of ruthless action to silence Mr. Khashoggi, a journalist, with violence," he said. "Neither the president or I am happy with this situation."
Members of Congress have demanded that sanctions be imposed on Saudi Arabia over the killing of Khashoggi, a U.S. resident and Washington Post contributor who disappeared after entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, on Oct. 2. Turkish authorities say Khashoggi was the victim of a pre-planned assassination operation while Saudi officials have conceded that he died but that his killing occurred accidentally while they were trying to convince him to return home.
Trump has resisted calls thus far to cut off arms sales to the kingdom and Pompeo stressed the strategic importance of the U.S.-Saudi relationship.
"We continue to view as achievable the twin imperative of protecting America and holding accountable those responsible for the killing of Mr. Khashoggi," Pompeo said. "We want to make sure that everyone understands that the United States doesn't believe that this killing of Jamal Khashoggi was anything other than a horrific act and we hope that we can work together both with Congress and our allies to hold those responsible accountable."
In his remarks to reporters at the White House, Trump derided the initial Saudi denial of any wrongdoing and efforts to conceal what happened to Khashoggi.
"They had a very bad original concept," Trump said. "It was carried out poorly and the cover-up was one of the worst cover-ups in the history of cover-ups. Somebody really messed up and they had the worst cover-up ever."
Saudi Arabia has claimed Khashoggi, who lived in self-imposed exile in the U.S. and wrote critically about Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, died accidentally in a brawl at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2.
But Turkish officials say a 15-men team tortured, killed and dismembered the writer and say Saudi officials had planned the killing for days.