The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Egypt planned to arrest a New York Times reporter. The Trump administration reportedly wanted to let it happen.

The New York Times building in New York, pictured in 2011. (Mark Lennihan/AP)

In late 2017, the New York Times received an urgent warning from a U.S. official. Egyptian authorities were looking to arrest Declan Walsh, the newspaper’s reporter in Cairo, according to its publisher. It’s not unusual for a large media organization to get tipped off about threats to its journalists overseas, particularly those reporting on authoritarian governments.

But what was striking is what the official said next: The Trump administration had tried to keep the warning about Walsh from ever reaching the Times. Officials “intended to sit on the information and let the arrest be carried out,” Times publisher A.G. Sulzberger wrote in an opinion column on Monday.

This incident, described publicly by Sulzberger for the first time in a talk at Brown University earlier on Monday, adds a chilling new episode to the administration’s trend of attacking the press and diminishing the rights of journalists as they come under threat around the globe, the publisher wrote.

Where the United States was once seen as the top defender of press freedom, Sulzberger suggested Trump has inspired the opposite around the globe, citing recent threats made in an address by the Cambodian prime minister, a social media blackout in Chad, and attempts to arrest foreign journalists in Egypt, whose autocratic president Trump once jokingly called his “favorite dictator.”

“These brutal crackdowns are being passively accepted and perhaps even tacitly encouraged by the president of the United States,” Sulzberger said.

President Trump has refused to acknowledge that the Saudi government ordered the assassination of The Washington Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi, as international investigators have found. And the president’s frequent use of the phrase “fake news” has resulted in more than 50 foreign government leaders to adopt similar calls, the publisher charged.

The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Walsh, The Times’s Cairo bureau chief, penned articles in early 2017 about the country’s crackdown on human rights groups, the expulsion of a prominent critic of Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi and the largely ineffective efforts to hold the country’s former president Hosni Mubarak accountable. He also led a live Web event from Cairo in March 2017 about the tight press restrictions placed on visual journalists in Egypt.

Hours after the New York Times Magazine published Walsh’s story about the controversial death of an Italian student in Cairo, the U.S. official called the Times to say the reporter had a target on his back, Walsh tweeted on Tuesday.

In New York, editors at the Times were also warned of Walsh’s imminent arrest. That’s when the call took a “surprising and distressing turn,” Sulzberger wrote on Monday.

The Trump administration wanted to sit on the warning and let Egyptian officials carry out the arrest, the official said. In fact, the official feared being punished for alerting the Times of what was about to play out.

And when Walsh called the U.S. Embassy in Cairo for help, he wrote Tuesday, a press officer there “expressed concern” but redirected him to the Irish Embassy instead. (Walsh is an Irish citizen.)

Almost immediately, an Irish official showed up at Walsh’s home and drove the journalist to the airport.

The Irish Embassy in Cairo referred a request for comment to the Irish Foreign Ministry, which said it does not comment on specific cases.

In his talk at Brown, Sulzberger used the incident to illustrate the repercussions of Trump’s failure to defend press freedom around the world.

“I’m sounding the alarm because his words are dangerous and having real-world consequences around the globe,” Sulzberger said.

Reporters Without Borders, a nonprofit that fights for press freedom, has noted a sharp drop in the number of countries where it is safe for journalists to work. Only 8 percent of 180 countries evaluated by the organization in 2019 have a media climate considered “good” for journalists, amid a tightening grip from government and increased violence. The United States came in at 48th, and Egypt was 163rd.

Later in his speech, Sulzberger mentioned an incident in February, in which another one of the newspaper’s journalists was targeted by the Egyptian government. This time, the Egyptians’ efforts were successful.

David D. Kirkpatrick, a Times international correspondent and former Cairo bureau chief, had written a book, “Into the Hands of the Soldiers,” that was critical of the Egyptian government. Upon landing in Cairo in February, Kirkpatrick was placed in custody for hours without food or water. He was then ordered on a flight back to London, where he is based.

In latest blow to press freedom, Egypt bars, then deports New York Times reporter

Sam Werberg, a spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, later said the office was “concerned” about the incident and raised the matter with Egyptian officials.

Privately, however, the embassy’s reaction to the incident seemed to differ. After the Times’s leadership spoke out, Sulzberger heard from a senior official at the embassy.

“What did you expect would happen to him?” the official said, according to Sulzberger. “His reporting made the government look bad.”

Sulzberger’s column prompted one of Trump’s most outspoken critics in Congress to compare the president to an “authoritarian.”

“This is what authoritarians do,” tweeted Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.).