As I watch the Trump administration lie ever more blatantly to protect Mohammed bin Salman — Saudi Arabia’s crown prince and the person most likely responsible for the death of my colleague Jamal Khashoggi — I’m reminded of my own experience with authoritarians, during my imprisonment for 544 days in Iran.
The strategy of President Trump, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and others is to make misleading statements — overblown claims about arms deals with the Saudis and the kingdom’s alleged role in protecting us from Iran — in a feeble attempt to divert our attention from the real issue, which is that a respected journalist was murdered because he wrote things a dictator didn’t like.
This would be bad enough on its own. But now Trump has issued an official statement on the killing of Khashoggi, and it makes for a galling, nauseating read. After running through a laundry list of reasons that the United States must maintain its friendship with Riyadh at all costs, Trump doubled down.
“Representatives of Saudi Arabia say that Jamal Khashoggi was an ‘enemy of the state’ and a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, but my decision is in no way based on that — this is an unacceptable and horrible crime,” Trump said in the statement.
I recognized this as a signature move of autocrats and their proxies, which is to sow doubt, whenever possible, about the character of their victims. Authoritarian regimes have a talent for imputing evil motives to their opponents — no matter how idealistic or innocent they may be in reality.
In my own case, I didn’t have the opportunity to defend myself. During my time in prison the Iranian authorities denied me legal representation and nearly all contact with the outside world.
Khashoggi, murdered in the most horrific fashion, must rely on those of us in the free world to defend his name and memory. I, and many other journalists, take it as a responsibility to keep writing and talking about this act of terror. In the past, the press and other wings of civil society could count on the U.S. government as an ally in such battles.
No longer. Trump and Pompeo have gone so far in defending Mohammed and the Saudi regime that their views are gradually becoming indistinguishable from their young despot friend.
I doubt Trump understands the problem. His hyperbolic statement is rife with assertions that are demonstrably false, including blaming Iran for the Saudi war on Yemen and or that there is still any doubt over the official nature of Khashoggi’s murder. Perhaps most importantly, though, his claim that economic ties justify our cozy relationship with the Saudis has been repeatedly exposed as a gross exaggeration.
As our top diplomat and the former CIA chief, though, Secretary Pompeo should know better. The American people deserve to be represented by officials whom we can trust to use all of their faculties and resources to represent us honestly and with integrity. I fear Pompeo’s blind hatred for the Iranian regime, and his unsubstantiated belief that it’s on its last legs, is clouding his vision on how to best handle our ongoing relations with Riyadh.
Unlike the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, we still have checks and balances, and there are encouraging signs that they will have a positive effect.
This past weekend, I had the opportunity to attend the Halifax International Security Forum, an annual gathering that brings together lawmakers, government officials, security experts and journalists to brainstorm about global affairs. The Khashoggi case and its repercussions were a prominent topic of discussion.
“His murder was a state-sponsored murder. It’s completely unacceptable,” Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) told reporters.
That was consistent with the message I kept hearing in my conversations with allies and U.S. lawmakers in Halifax. All said that they would do everything in their power to begin to defang Saudi Arabia, including working to block arms sales and cutting off all remaining support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen.
That should be welcomed. We cannot let the White House continue its disastrous course of tolerance for the depraved regime in Riyadh.