President Trump said Thursday it appears that Jamal Khashoggi is dead and warned that his administration could consider “very severe” measures against Saudi Arabia, sharply raising pressures on the kingdom as it prepares its own accounting of the journalist’s disappearance.
That is some progress over Trump’s statements of feigned ignorance about the fate of the Post contributing columnist, but the tougher rhetoric went along with the decision to give the Saudis a few more days to complete their so-called investigation into what Turkish authorities and multiple media reports describe as the killing and dismemberment of the U.S.-based journalist.
When the story first broke, Trump — ever the helpful PR man for Riyadh — said that Khashoggi wasn’t really an American journalist since he only lived in the United States but was not a citizen. Trump’s ludicrous attempt to downgrade the slaughter of a journalist for an American newspaper, who lived in the United States after he fled his country for fear of reprisals, is stunning. Imagine if British Prime Minister Theresa May had said that poisoned ex-spy Sergei Skripal was really Russian not British, so therefore his poisoning on British soil wasn’t that big a deal.
Trump entirely misses the point in his quibble about immigration status. The case of a persecuted individual who fled his home country for the safety of the United States and then is slain in a diplomatic office abroad should be of extreme concern. By shrugging off the killing of a U.S. resident as a matter of less importance than that of a U.S. citizen, we essentially say that the United States can offer no harbor or protection from totalitarian state assassination attempts.
Frankly, it should matter not at all whether he was even a U.S. resident. Bloomberg reports:
President Emmanuel Macron said France has suspended political visits to Saudi Arabia in coordination with Germany, the U.K. and the Netherlands as he awaits “clarifications” on the disappearance of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
“In the current circumstances we have decided to suspended some visits, political ones,” Macron told reporters in Brussels on Thursday after a summit of European leaders. He said that Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire’s planned trip to the kingdom’s economic forum next week would not now go ahead.
Nearly a week ago Macron said, “What’s been mentioned is serious, very serious. … France wants everything to be done so that we have all the truth on this case, of which the first elements are extremely worrying.” And let’s remember that France is a major arms seller to Saudi Arabia as well. Nevertheless, Macron and his fellow leaders from the European Union understand that the killing of Khashoggi is an attack on all free expression and on countries engaged in an existential battle with anti-democratic regimes. (Macron doesn’t seem to have been suckered by the Saudi crown prince, as Trump has been. “In talks with humanitarian groups in September, Macron said he was skeptical of Prince Mohammed [bin Salman’s] reform agenda and that he would not hesitate to question him if required, according to people present.”)
Unlike Trump, Europeans understand the stakes when a journalist with no connection to their own countries is lured into a consulate, tortured, killed and chopped up. If Khashoggi’s killers get away with this heinous crime, no citizen or resident of any country is safe from the long arm of totalitarian thugs. Similarly, British Prime Minister Theresa May’s spokeswoman issued a statement deploring Trump’s praise for a Montana congressman who body-slammed a reporter for the Guardian newspaper. “[Trump] obviously made comments at a political rally, and those are for him. But more generally we would always say that any violence or intimidation against a journalist is completely unacceptable.” The U.S. president is now an enabler of violence against journalism, not, as are his European counterparts, defenders of a free press.
“Now we face a great test of whether an American resident—a journalist, a public intellectual, and a forthright dissident, to whom America gave both refuge and inspiration—can be murdered in a third country with impunity by a ruler and a state that have brazenly acted above the law,” wrote Larry Diamond of the Hoover Institution. “With every new incident of international murder and intimidation, our values, our commitment to freedom, and our national interest in a world governed by law are under challenge. We must make it clear not only to the Saudi monarchy but to all the world’s dictators that they cannot murder their opponents with impunity. They must know that there will be consequences, and that we will hold them personally responsible.”
But what if there aren’t any real consequences for the Saudis — if they receive a hand slap and nothing more? Such indifference would demonstrate to the world that we are too feeble and cowardly to defend ourselves, our free press and our democratic society. (It would be like a foreign power that meddled in our elections getting a free pass. Yes, exactly like that.)
Should Trump prove himself unable to hold even a corrupt crown prince of a third world country to account for his thuggish conduct, Trump might as well declare it open season on all Americans — or, for that matter, on any free people who get on the wrong side of dictators. One can hardly contemplate a U.S. president who could be so weak and fearful.