WASHINGTON — President Trump on Tuesday condemned Saudi Arabia’s account of the killing of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi as “the worst cover-up ever,” and his administration warned for the first time that it would impose human rights sanctions on those who took part in the plot.
Mr. Trump’s latest criticism, and the threat of sanctions delivered by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, highlighted the mounting pressure on the White House after Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, described the killing of Mr. Khashoggi in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul as a premeditated and “savage” murder.
Speaking to reporters in the Oval Office, Mr. Trump said, “They had a very bad original concept, it was carried out poorly, and the cover-up was the worst in the history of cover-ups.”
“Whoever thought of that idea, I think, is in big trouble, and they should be in big trouble,” he said of the operation inside the Saudi Consulate, during which, Turkish officials say, Mr. Khashoggi was killed and his body dismembered with a bone saw.
Mr. Pompeo said the United States will revoke visas from and is considering imposing economic sanctions on the Saudis it had identified as being involved in the operation. But he did not name the Saudis to whom the punishments would apply, and he left open the possibility that people at the very top level of the Saudi royal court who might have ordered the killing could remain untouched.
The chief State Department spokeswoman said later that 21 Saudi suspects would have their visas revoked or be barred from getting a visa to the United States.
The United States would take action under the Global Magnitsky Act, named after a slain Russian lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky, which enables the United States to freeze assets and place travel bans on people found guilty of human rights abuses.
“These penalties will not be the last word on the matter from the United States,” Mr. Pompeo told reporters at a briefing on Tuesday at the State Department. “We’re making very clear that the United States does not tolerate this kind of ruthless action to silence Mr. Khashoggi, a journalist, through violence.”
Neither Mr. Pompeo nor the president would say whether they believed that Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, was responsible for the killing. Mr. Trump said he would reserve final judgment until American officials, including the C.I.A. director, Gina Haspel, returned from Turkey in the next couple of days.
Mr. Trump reiterated his view that Congress should take the lead in imposing sanctions on the Saudis, though he cautioned lawmakers to remember the multibillion-dollar arms deal and other business ties between Saudi Arabia and the United States.
“In terms of what we ultimately do,” the president said, “I’m going to leave it very much — in conjunction with me — I’m going to leave it up to Congress.”