WASHINGTON - US President Donald Trump accused Saudi Arabia of lying about the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, his strongest comments to date on the affair, as pressure built Sunday on the administration to identify and punish those responsible.
In an interview with The Washington Post published late Saturday, Trump stepped back from his stance that the Saudis had earlier provided a credible explanation for the death of the journalist inside their Istanbul consulate, but he said he remained confident in the leadership of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
"Obviously there's been deception and there's been lies," he said of the shifting accounts offered by Riyadh.
Saudi officials originally said Khashoggi, who entered the diplomatic mission on October 2, had left unharmed, before announcing Friday that he was killed inside the building in what they described as an altercation.
"Their stories are all over the place," added Trump.
Saudi Arabia faced a growing chorus of incredulity Sunday, with world powers including Britain and France demanding answers and some American politicians calling for tough, concerted action to punish the Saudi royal family if it were proven to be responsible.
The Saudi version lacked "consistency and credibility," said Chrystia Freeland, Canada's foreign minister.
Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir insisted Sunday that the killing was "a tremendous mistake" -- part of a "rogue operation," he said -- and the crown prince had not ordered it.
He also expressed confidence that the US-Saudi relationship would survive the crisis.
"The strategic relationship is important for both countries," Jubeir told Fox News. "The relationship will weather this."
But a series of US lawmakers of both parties expressed doubt, demanding a stronger stance against the longtime US regional partner.
Several senior members of Trump's Republican Party said they believed Prince Mohammed, the kingdom's de facto ruler, was linked to the killing, and one called for a "collective" Western response if a link is proved.
Trump emphasized the importance of the US-Saudi relationship to Washington's regional strategic goals.
He described the 33-year-old prince, widely known as MBS, as a "strong person; he has very good control."
Trump added that he has yet to be shown any evidence by intelligence officials that would make him believe MBS had any direct role.
"Nobody has told me he's responsible. Nobody has told me he's not responsible. We haven't reached that point," the president said.
"It could be something in the building went badly awry."
Republicans hit MBS
Amid Trump's apparent equivocations, several leading Republicans demanded a tougher stance.
Asked if he thought Prince Mohammed was behind the killing, Republican Senator Bob Corker told CNN: "Yes, I think he did it. Let's finish this investigation."
Corker, who chairs the Foreign Relations Committee, added that if the prince is implicated, "There should be a collective response."
"I think you're going to see the United States, United Kingdom, France, Germany working collectively with others if he did this to respond in an appropriate way."
Perhaps the strongest words came from Lindsey Graham, a strong Trump ally in the Senate who called for Prince Mohammed to "be removed."
"I would like to punish those involved. It's impossible to believe the crown prince wasn't involved. I don't mind military sales but I object to business with the current leadership," he said.
Trump has cited a planned $110 billion arms sale to Saudi Arabia as a reason for a cautious approach, although many components of that package had been set in motion months or years before he took office.
"This behavior is outside the norm to the point that the people involved need to be removed in my view. Saudi Arabia is a country and MBS is a person. I'm willing to separate the two," Graham continued, accusing the prince of acting in a "barbaric fashion."
Democrats have repeatedly lashed out at Trump's response as weak and indecisive, and they said his latest reaction fell short as well.
Barring an unlikely "confession" from Prince Mohammed, Democratic Congressman Adam Schiff said Sunday, "the president is going to accept the crown prince's denials like he's accepted Putin's denials and Kim Jong Un's denials."
"We have to see if financial motives are influencing the president," he said on ABC.
Democratic Senator Dick Durbin called in a statement for the expulsion of the Saudi ambassador from the United States -- Prince Khalid bin Salman, the crown prince's younger brother -- pending completion of a "third-party investigation into the kidnap and murder of Jamal Khashoggi."