WASHINGTON — Turkey said on Saturday that it had turned over audio recordings of the brutal killing of a Saudi journalist to the United States and other Western countries, intensifying the pressure on President Trump to take stronger punitive steps against his allies in Saudi Arabia.
The disclosure, made by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, was his first public acknowledgment of the existence of recordings of the murder of the journalist, Jamal Khashoggi, in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul last month. Saudi Arabia has acknowledged that its operatives killed Mr. Khashoggi but denied that the attack was ordered at the top levels of the royal court.
“We gave them the tapes,” Mr. Erdogan said at a news conference in Ankara before flying to Paris to join Mr. Trump and other leaders at an international gathering. “They’ve also listened to the conversations, they know it. There is no need to distort this.”
The White House declined to say whether it had a copy of the recording. But if true, Mr. Erdogan’s claim puts Mr. Trump in a deeply awkward position, suggesting he possesses direct evidence of Mr. Khashoggi’s killing, even as he has resisted tough sanctions against the Saudis and declined to say exactly who he believes was responsible for the crime.
The Trump administration has taken modest steps against the Saudi government, suspending air-refueling flights for the Saudi military campaign in Yemen and preparing human rights sanctions against Saudis who have been linked to the killing of Mr. Khashoggi, a resident of Virginia who wrote columns for The Washington Post.
But the White House has declined to finger Saudi Arabia’s de facto leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who has developed close ties to Mr. Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, and has become a linchpin of the administration’s Middle East strategy. Analysts have said that any operation like the one that led to Mr. Khashoggi’s assassination almost certainly would have to be approved at the highest levels in Saudi Arabia.
The administration’s limited actions against the Saudis seem calculated in part to head off a tougher response in Congress, where lawmakers from both parties have expressed outrage over the murder of a journalist inside a diplomatic facility and Saudi Arabia’s shifting explanations for it.
While Mr. Trump said he believes that the Saudis tried to cover up the killing, he has steadfastly reserved judgment on who is to blame until the Saudi government provides a definitive public accounting of the killing, based on its own investigation. That is expected this coming week.
“I’ll have a much stronger opinion on that subject over the next week,” Mr. Trump said at a news conference on Tuesday. He referred to the killing as a “very sad thing, very terrible thing.”
A candlelight vigil was held last month for the journalist Jamal Khashoggi outside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. Mr. Khashoggi was killed inside the consulate on Oct. 2.CreditEmrah Gurel/Associated Press
“We’re working with Congress, we’re working with Turkey, and we’re working with Saudi Arabia,” the president said. “And I’m forming a very strong opinion.”
Mr. Trump was likely to meet with Mr. Erdogan in Paris, where dozens of world leaders gathered at the invitation of President Emmanuel Macron to mark the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I.
Turkish and Western officials have previously discussed the existence of the audio recordings only on the condition of anonymity. Turkish officials have said the audio includes clear evidence of a premeditated killing, in which a team of Saudi agents moved quickly and matter-of-factly to dismember Mr. Khashoggi’s body with a bone saw.
The director of the C.I.A., Gina Haspel, met with Turkish intelligence officials in Ankara last month, and Turkish and American officials said she was allowed to listen to the recordings, but not take a copy with her.
It is unclear when or how the Turks shared the recording with the other governments. It is also unclear whether Mr. Erdogan views the sharing of the audio with Ms. Haspel as amounting to handing it over to the United States.
While the timing of the Turkish disclosures is uncertain, Turkey’s motivation for doing so is not. In the weeks since the killing, Mr. Erdogan has abandoned his initially cautious effort to avoid a full rupture in Turkish relations with Riyadh, and he has instead entered into an all-out campaign to damage or even dislodge Prince Mohammed from power.
Turkish officials have said Washington is the primary focus of his effort, in part because Mr. Erdogan believes that only the United States has enough influence in Saudi Arabia and the region to punish Prince Mohammed.
On Saturday, Mr. Erdogan accused the Saudis of dragging their feet in the investigation. “Saudi Arabia must respond to our good will, and be just, and clear themselves of this stain,” he said.
Hostility between Mr. Erdogan and Prince Mohammed has been an open secret in the Middle East for years. Mr. Erdogan has presented himself as a champion of the Arab Spring uprisings and the Islamist political parties that once appeared poised to ride them to power; Prince Mohammed is the anchor of an alliance of Arab authoritarians who have sought to stamp out those uprisings and ensure against any recurrence.
Each considers himself the international standard-bearer for a radically contradictory view of Islam. Mr. Erdogan was also a personal friend of Mr. Khashoggi’s from the journalist’s years as a commentator on regional affairs in the Saudi-owned media.
Turkish and American officials have said that Gina Haspel, the C.I.A. director, shown in a photo from August, was allowed to hear audio recordings related to Mr. Khashoggi’s killing when she visited Turkey last month.CreditAndrew Harnik/Associated Press
Still, for weeks after the killing, Mr. Erdogan was circumspect about his accusations, mainly limiting himself to provocative questions. Turkish officials close to him said that Mr. Erdogan hoped to avoid a rift with Riyadh, noting that the two rival leaders had kept up the appearance of cordial relations for years because of their shared interests in the region.
Mr. Erdogan was also reluctant to acknowledge possession of audio recordings because they appear to have been obtained through intelligence surveillance inside the Saudi diplomatic compound — something that is routine but also a violation of international diplomatic covenants.
But as Saudi Arabia has bungled its response to the killing — denying it for weeks, then calling it an accident, and later acknowledging evidence of premeditation — Mr. Erdogan’s posture has shifted.
As criticism has mounted, he has evidently calculated that he can deal a serious enough blow to Prince Mohammed to permanently cripple him. When other news in the West threatened to push Mr. Khashoggi from the headlines, Turkish allies of Mr. Erdogan have reached out to Western journalists, probing for ways to keep it alive.
In Washington, where the midterm elections have eclipsed news of the case for the last two weeks, the Trump administration is expected to announce economic sanctions against Saudi officials linked to the murder, according to current and former officials.
At the White House, as well as the State Department and the Treasury Department, officials have discussed imposing the sanctions under the Global Magnitsky Act, which gives the executive branch the power to punish foreign officials involved in human rights abuses. The announcement could come in days.
The administration has also shown growing impatience with Saudi Arabia’s handling of the war in Yemen. Last week, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called on all sides to end hostilities and take part in United Nations-led negotiations. But Saudi leaders did not immediately move to limit their airstrikes, angering some in the Trump administration, according to former officials.
“The Saudis have escalated; they have intensified the war,” said Bruce Riedel, an expert on Saudi Arabia at the Brookings Institution. “It is a very public rebuke of both the secretary of state and the secretary of defense by the Saudis. The administration has not said anything about that. But curtailing air refueling would be their response.”
The American support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen has been deeply controversial, especially as civilian casualties have mounted — many children are among the victims — and a famine resulting from the war has gripped the country.
The administration has faced growing bipartisan criticism over the American military’s support for the Saudi campaign. On Friday, Senator Todd Young, Republican of Indiana, and Senator Jeanne Shaheen, Democrat of New Hampshire, called for an end to the air- refueling mission.