WASHINGTON — Saudi Ambassador to the U.S. Khalid bin Salman, the brother of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, has returned to the United States for the first time since the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, four individuals with knowledge of his return tell NBC News.
Prince Khalid left Washington and flew to Riyadh shortly after news broke of Khashoggi’s disappearance, and hasn’t been back to the U.S. since, as outrage in Washington has mushroomed over the killing of Khashoggi in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. He played a key role in the initial cover-up of Khashoggi’s killing, infuriating senators by conveying the official Saudi line that the Washington Post columnist had left the consulate unharmed and that security cameras hadn’t captured his departure because they simply weren’t recording.
Prince Khalid landed at Dulles International Airport early Wednesday morning, about three hours before former President George H.W. Bush’s state funeral was set to begin at the National Cathedral. Three individuals said that Prince Khalid had planned to attend the funeral, which was attended by many ambassadors and foreign representatives. But ultimately he did not attend.
A Saudi official said that Prince Khalid’s plane had been delayed and so he was "unable to comply with the protocol scheduling." For state funerals, official protocol often dictates that invitees arrive in a specific order.
After NBC News reported Wednesday on Prince Khalid’s return, the Saudi Embassy in Washington confirmed that he is now in Washington. Embassy spokeswoman Fatimah Baeshen said that Saudi Arabia was represented at Bush’s funeral by Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir.
Prince Khalid is unlikely to receive a warm welcome for his return to the U.S. Only a day earlier, top senators emerged from a classified briefing with CIA Director Gina Haspel incensed by the evidence presented that they said connected the crown prince to the killing, despite Saudi Arabia’s insistence that he was uninvolved and unaware.
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“There’s not a smoking gun — there’s a smoking saw," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., in a reference to reports that a bone saw was brought to the consulate and used to dismember Khashoggi.
Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told reporters after the briefing that he had "zero question" that the crown prince ordered the killing.
"If he was in front of a jury he would be convicted in 30 minutes. Guilty. So, the question is what do we do about that?" Corker said.
Prince Khalid has slowly started returning to the spotlight following weeks of staying off the radar that had prompted speculation that he might not return as ambassador. On Friday, he and Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir met with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in Buenos Aires.
“It was a great meeting. Very productive,” the Saudi foreign minister said after the roughly one-hour meeting. He did not respond to a shouted question about whether Khashoggi was discussed.
Prince Khalid’s role in conveying false information about Khashoggi has led some Saudi critics to call for him to be expelled as ambassador to the U.S., although there have been no indications the Trump administration intends to do so. President Donald Trump and his top aides have repeatedly defended Saudi Arabia as a critical ally and arms customer whose relationship with the U.S. should not suffer despite Khashoggi’s killing.
In another indication that he won’t be expelled, a U.S. official tells NBC News that Prince Khalid is still the ambassador and that "his status as such remains unchanged." The official wasn’t authorized to comment by name and requested anonymity.
Prince Khalid had insisted publicly that Khashoggi was not murdered for more than a week after his disappearance. In an open letter from Prince Khalid released by the Saudi Embassy on Oct. 8, he said that Khashoggi "has many friends in the Kingdom, including myself."
"I assure you that the reports that suggest that Jamal Khashoggi went missing in the Consulate in Istanbul or that the Kingdom’s authorities have detained him or killed him are absolutely false, and baseless," Prince Khalid wrote.
Saudi Arabia later admitted that Khashoggi was murdered inside the consulate by a team of Saudi intelligence operatives sent from Riyadh. But a continuing debate has played out over any role played by Crown Prince Mohammed in ordering the killing.
NBC News has reported previously that months before Khashoggi’s killing, he was invited up to Prince Khalid’s office in the Saudi Embassy in Washington for coffee and had a friendly conversation with the ambassador. That meeting came as Saudi Arabia tried to lure Khashoggi, a vocal critic of Saudi Arabia’s government, back to the kingdom.