This harrowing saga has two main dimensions: Saudi brutality, certainly, but it also underscores the ways in which President Trump’s fawning dictator worship, his pervasive conflicts of interest and his attacks on the media have emboldened authoritarian regimes to viciously silence their critics.
Let’s start with the obvious: Saudi Arabia is a pitiless and despotic regime. Homosexuality, atheism, adultery and “sorcery” are all still punishable by death. The authorities chop off the heads of dissidents who speak their minds. Many executions are carried out publicly, with heads bagged and hung alongside the corpse, which is nailed to a cross and displayed as a warning. The “lucky” ones are just abducted or arrested and left to rot in a jail cell.
This is one of our closest allies. The stain is bipartisan: Democratic and Republican presidents have supported the Saudis, selling them hundreds of billions of dollars of weaponry – even as they slaughter civilians in their horrifying war in Yemen. Even if you’re a hard-nosed advocate of realpolitik, the cost to American soft power by being in bed with such barbarism creates greater long-term costs than the short-term gains are worth.
Since Trump took office, the Saudi regime has become more brazen. Khashoggi’s disappearance reflects a strategic calculation: They think they can abduct or murder a journalist working for an American news organization without facing serious consequences. So far, they’re right – Trump has only called on them to investigate the disappearance. That weak response comes despite new evidence that “before Khashoggi’s disappearance, U.S. intelligence intercepted communications of Saudi officials discussing a plan to capture him.”
Worse, it’s likely that Trump’s finances and his rhetoric contributed to Saudi Arabia’s decision to green-light their barefaced conspiracy to silence Khashoggi.
Trump’s despicable dictator worship sends an unequivocal signal that the man in the Oval Office doesn’t just tolerate dictators and authoritarian despots, but admires them. Two weeks ago, Trump said he “fell in love” with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. Trump has praised Presidents Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, Xi Jinping of China, Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, Vladimir Putin of Russia and, of course, the current Saudi ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Since 1928, every U.S. president has made his first foreign trip to Mexico, Canada, France, Belgium, Britain or Germany. Trump’s first trip was to Saudi Arabia, where he did a sword dance alongside officials who behead dissidents with swords.
Furthermore, Trump’s foreign policy toward Saudi Arabia is compromised by deep financial conflicts of interest. His business interests — past, present, and future — make it impossible for him to contemplate the kind of consequences that the Saudis deserve. In 1991, when Trump was $900 million in debt, he was bailed out by a member of the Saudi royal family, who purchased his 281-foot yacht, Trump Princess. Trump’s other princess, Ivanka, is married to Jared Kushner, who has deep ties to the crown prince. In 2015, when asked about his relationship with the Saudis, Trump said: “I get along great with all of them. They buy apartments from me. They spend $40 million, $50 million. Am I supposed to dislike them? I like them very much.”
As recently as December 2016, Trump owned companies in Saudi Arabia, as he sought to build a hotel there. Three days after Trump’s inauguration, lobbyists working for the Saudi government funnelled $270,000 directly to the Trump Organization by booking rooms at his Washington hotel. More recently, Trump’s flagging Manhattan hotel got bailed out thanks to a lucrative visit from none other than the Saudi crown prince.
It raises the disturbing possibility that Saudi Arabia will get away with abduction or murder because the president is beholden to Saudi money.
Finally, Trump’s attacks on the media are endangering the lives not just of Khashoggi but of journalists globally.
Here’s a useful thought experiment: You’re in charge of an authoritarian regime. Previously, your desire to silence critics in the media was tempered by credible threats of consequences from the White House. Then, a new president unequivocally praises “strong” dictators and channels Joseph Stalin to call journalists “the enemy of the people.” How would it change your behavior?
Saudi Arabia provided its answer to that not-so-hypothetical question in Istanbul last week.
President Trump should now press the Saudis for more answers related to the disappearance of our colleague, Jamal Khashoggi. We’ll soon find out whether Trump is a diplomatic weakling in the pocket of authoritarian princes from an absolute monarchy. I hope that he will prove me wrong.
Americans – and Jamal – deserve to know.