President Donald Trump on Tuesday criticised rapidly mounting global condemnation of Saudi Arabia over the mystery of missing journalist Jamal Khashoggi, warning of a rush to judgment and echoing the Saudis' request for patience.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Trump compared the case of Khashoggi, who Turkish officials have said was murdered in the Saudis' Istanbul consulate, to the allegations of sexual assault levelled against Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh during his confirmation hearing.
"I think we have to find out what happened first," Trump said. "Here we go again with, you know, you're guilty until proven innocent. I don't like that. We just went through that with Justice Kavanaugh and he was innocent all the way as far as I'm concerned."
Trump's remarks were his most robust defence yet of the Saudis, a US ally he has made central to his Mideast agenda.
They put the president at odds with other key allies and with some leaders in his Republican Party who have condemned the Saudi leadership for what they say is an obvious role in the case.
Trump appeared willing to resist the pressure to follow suit, accepting Saudi denials and their pledge to investigate.
The Oval Office interview came not long after Trump spoke Tuesday with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
He spoke by phone a day earlier with King Salman, and he said both deny any knowledge of what happened to Khashoggi.
After speaking with the king, Trump floated the idea that "rogue killers" may have been responsible for the disappearance.
The president told the AP on Tuesday that that description was informed by his "feeling" from his conversation with Salman and that the king did not use the term.
In Turkey earlier Tuesday, a high-level Turkish official told the AP that police investigators searching the Saudi Consulate had found evidence that Khashoggi was killed there.
Also Tuesday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met with the king and crown prince in Riyadh and said the Saudis had already started a "serious and credible investigation" and seemed to suggest it could lead to people within the kingdom.
The secretary of state noted that the Saudi leaders, while denying knowledge of anything that occurred inside the consulate, had committed to accountability "including for Saudi Arabia's senior leaders or senior officials."
Pompeo was heading next to Turkey, where officials have accused the Saudis of using a 15-member team to kill Khashoggi inside the consulate.
Trump said he hoped the Saudis' own investigation of Khashoggi's disappearance would be concluded in "less than a week."
In the meantime, there were signs at home that Trump's party was growing uncomfortable with his willingness to defend the Saudis.
In an interview with Fox News, a prominent Trump ally in the Senate called on Saudi Arabia to reject the crown prince, known as MBS, who rose to power last year and has aggressively sought to soften the kingdom's image abroad and attract foreign investment.
"This guy has got to go," said Sen Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, turning to speak to the camera.
"Saudi Arabia, if you're listening, there are a lot of good people you can choose, but MBS has tainted your country and tainted himself."
Khashoggi, a Saudi citizen who was also a resident of the United States, has been a contributor to The Washington Post and a critic of Saudi leaders, especially Crown Prince Mohammed.
International leaders and business executives are severing or rethinking ties to the Saudi government after Khashoggi's high-profile disappearance.
Trump has resisted any action, pointing to huge US weapons deals pending with Saudi Arabia and saying that sanctions could end up hurting the American economy.
He said it was too early to say whether he endorsed other countries' actions.
"I have to find out what happened," he said.
But his complaint about "guilty until proven innocent" and comparison to the Kavanaugh situation suggested he was giving the Saudis more leeway than other allies.
Khashoggi went to the consulate on October 2 to get documents for his upcoming marriage to a Turkish woman while his fiancee waited outside.
She and Turkish authorities say he never emerged and he has not been heard from since.
Khashoggi, 59, had been living in the US for a year in self-imposed exile and writing columns for the opinion section of the Post.
Trump said Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin's trip to attend a Saudi investment conference is still on but could be cancelled by Friday depending on what the investigation finds.
"I think we'll also be guided by what other countries are doing," he said.
Meanwhile, US top diplomat Mike Pompeo held talks with Saudi King Salman on Tuesday seeking answers about the disappearance of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, amid US media reports the kingdom may be mulling an admission he died during a botched interrogation.
"Rogue killers" could be to blame for the disappearance of Khashoggi, who has not been seen since he walked into the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2 to sort out marriage paperwork, US President Donald Trump said after telephone talks with the king.
Trump dispatched Pompeo to Riyadh for what the State Department described as "face to face meetings with the Saudi leadership".
After his talks with the king, Pompeo was to have dinner with his powerful son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, a US official told the accompanying press.
Turkish police on Monday searched the consulate for the first time since the disappearance of Khashoggi, a Saudi national and US resident who had become increasingly critical of Prince Mohammed.
Turkish officials have said they believe he was killed - a claim Saudi Arabia has denied - with the controversy dealing a huge blow to the prince's efforts to showcase a reform drive and burnish the kingdom's image.
US media reported on Monday that the kingdom is considering an admission that Khashoggi died after an interrogation that went wrong during an intended abduction.
The UN human rights chief called Tuesday for the lifting of the immunity of officials who might be involved in Khashoggi's disappearance.
"In view of the seriousness of the situation surrounding the disappearance of Mr. Khashoggi, I believe the inviolability or immunity of the relevant premises and officials... should be waived immediately," Michelle Bachelet said in a statement.
Until Monday, Riyadh had not allowed Turkish investigators to search the consulate - officially Saudi territory - with reports both sides were at odds over the conditions.
The investigators, who searched the premises for eight hours into Tuesday morning, took samples with them, including soil from the consulate garden, one official at the scene said.
Istanbul police are now also planning to search the nearby consul's residence, a diplomatic source said.
Trump's comments came after a telephone conversation with King Salman, father of the crown prince, the first such talks since the crisis erupted.
"Just spoke to the King of Saudi Arabia who denies any knowledge of whatever may have happened 'to our Saudi Arabian citizen'," Trump tweeted.
Riyadh's most recent comments have focused on having no knowledge of any killing or denying that any order to kill Khashoggi had been given.
"The denial was very, very strong," Trump later told reporters at the White House. "It sounded to me like maybe these could have been rogue killers. Who knows?"
But CNN cited two sources as saying the Saudis are preparing a report that his death resulted from a botched interrogation, while the Wall Street Journal said the kingdom was weighing whether to say that rogue operatives killed Khashoggi by mistake.
After his crunch talks in Riyadh Tuesday, Pompeo was expected in Turkey on Wednesday to meet Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, the state-run Anadolu news agency said.
The search came after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and King Salman also had their first telephone talks since the controversy erupted.
The controversy has troubled Saudi's traditional Western allies, who are key arms suppliers to the kingdom, and also undermined efforts by Mohammed bin Salman to present himself as a modernising ruler.
An investment conference seen as a platform for the crown prince and dubbed the "Davos in the Desert", scheduled to take place in Riyadh next week, has been hit by a string of prominent cancellations.
JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon, Ford chairman Bill Ford and Larry Fink, the head of investment giant BlackRock, were among the latest business barons to cancel plans to attend.
US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said he still plans to attend but would "take (it)... into account" if more information came out.
The controversy meanwhile threw into doubt a USD 400 million deal the Saudi Public Investment Fund negotiated with Hollywood's most powerful talent agency as part of the crown prince's drive for a foothold in the entertainment industry.
Endeavor CEO Ari Emanuel said the Khashoggi case was "very, very concerning", although he stopped short of pronouncing the deal was dead.
Trump has threatened the kingdom with "severe punishment" if it is shown that
Khashoggi was killed inside its Istanbul mission.
But he has also made clear he is reluctant to curb all-important arms sales to Saudi Arabia.
Britain, France and Germany also released a rare joint statement saying they were treating Khashoggi's disappearance "with the utmost seriousness" and calling for a "credible investigation".
Riyadh, however, has vowed to hit back against any punitive measures imposed over the affair.