President Donald Trump suggested today that "rogue killers" could be responsible for the mysterious disappearance of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, an explanation offering US ally Saudi Arabia a possible path out of a global diplomatic firestorm.
The Saudis continued to deny they killed the writer, but there were indications the story could soon change.
While Mr Trump commented at the White House, Turkish crime scene investigators finally entered the Saudi consulate to comb the building where Mr Khashoggi was last seen alive two weeks ago.
Mr Trump spoke after a personal 20-minute phone call with Saudi King Salman and as the president dispatched his secretary of state to Riyadh for a face-to-face discussion with the king. Late in the day, there were published reports that the Saudis were preparing to concede that Khashoggi, a US-based Saudi contributor to The Washington Post, had been killed in an interrogation gone wrong.
"The king firmly denied any knowledge of it," Mr Trump told reporters as he left the White House for a trip to survey hurricane damage in Florida and Georgia. Mr Trump said he didn't "want to get into (Salman's) mind," but he added, "it sounded to me like maybe these could have been rogue killers. I mean, who knows? We're going to try getting to the bottom of it very soon, but his was a flat denial."
Mr Khashoggi, a critic of the Saudi government and in particular Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, was last seen entering the consulate on October 2 to get paperwork for his upcoming marriage to a Turkish woman. Turkish officials have said he was killed and dismembered.
In a sign of new cooperation between Turkey and Saudi Arabia that could shed light on the disappearance, Turkish investigators wearing coveralls and gloves entered the consulate on Monday local time. It remained unclear what evidence they might be able to uncover. Earlier in the day, a cleaning crew with mops, trash bags and what appeared to be bottles of bleach walked in past waiting journalists.
Trump administration officials told The Associated Press that intelligence collected by the US is inconclusive as to what actually happened to Mr Khashoggi. With such a lack of clarity, the administration has not ruled out any possible scenario.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, hurriedly sent to Riyadh, expected to get more clarity during talks with Saudi leaders tomorrow. The White House expects credible answers quickly after Mr Pompeo wraps up his trip with a stop in Ankara for meetings with senior Turkish officials.
The State Department has urged a thorough investigation into Mr Khashoggi's disappearance and called on Saudi Arabia to be transparent about the results - advice broadly tracking messages from allies in Europe. Germany, Britain and France issued a joint statement over the weekend expressing "grave concern" and calling for a credible investigation to ensure those responsible for the disappearance "are held to account."
Mr Trump quoted the King today as saying that neither he nor his son, Crown Prince Mohammed, had any information about what had happened to Mr Khashoggi.
The prince, ambitious, aggressive and just 33 in a kingdom long ruled by aging monarchs, has considerable weight in Saudi government actions. He and Mr Trump's son-in-law and senior advisor, Jared Kushner, have forged close ties.
Just last week, Mr Trump vowed to uncover the truth about what happened to Khashoggi and promised "severe punishment" for those responsible. But he has said repeatedly that he does not want to halt a proposed $US110 billion arms sale to Saudi Arabia - as some in Congress have said he should - because it would harm the US economically.
Saudi Arabia has pledged to retaliate economically for any US punitive action. That would be an unprecedented breach in a decades-old, deep economic and security relationship that is key to Washington's policies in the Middle East. A Saudi-owned satellite channel later suggested the world's largest oil exporter could wield that production as a weapon against America.