Two overlapping things of widely divergent importance happened Monday morning that bring into clear relief President Trump’s double standard on the proof he demands on political issues.
The first was his response to a question about the missing Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, alleged to have been killed by the Saudi Arabian government at that country’s embassy in Turkey.
“I just spoke with the King of Saudi Arabia, and he denies any knowledge of what took place with regards to, as he said, to Saudi Arabia’s citizen,” Trump said while talking to reporters Monday morning. “He firmly denies that.”
“We are going to leave nothing uncovered,” Trump said later about the investigation into Khashoggi’s disappearance. “With that being said, the king firmly denies any knowledge of it. He didn’t really know, maybe, I don’t want to get into his mind, but it sounded to me like maybe it could have been rogue killers, who knows? We’re going to try get to the bottom of it very soon, but his was a flat denial.”
It was a response starkly reminiscent of Trump’s consistent denials that the Russian government interfered with the 2016 election, including that it illegally accessed the computer network of the Democratic Party. There, the part of the “rogue killers” was played, at one point, by a “guy sitting on their bed who weighs 400 pounds” who was the real hacker. Russian President Vladimir Putin “was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today,” Trump said after the pair met in Finland in July.
In neither case is Trump particularly eager to have the deniers be culpable in the illicit act. If Russia interfered in the 2016 election — as is understood by U.S. intelligence agencies — Trump apparently fears that the legitimacy of his position is at stake. If Saudi Arabia killed a Post journalist who was living in the United States (who, as Trump has now pointedly mentioned several times, was a Saudi citizen), it raises uncomfortable questions about the tricky relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia.
Perhaps there’s more that’s influencing Trump’s views of the relationships with either country that isn’t related to politics; at a rally in Alabama in 2015, he said of Saudis: “They buy apartments from me. They spend $40 million, $50 million. Am I supposed to dislike them?” But as it stands, accepting the consensus view complicates his political instincts. So he rejects or undercuts that view.
He did the same thing Sunday night in his interview with “60 Minutes,” reiterating the hoary old claim that there’s debate in the scientific community about man’s role in climate change (and layering on a new-for-him argument, that the climate will simply eventually change back). He has done the same thing with his political allies, raising questions about the accusations against Alabama senatorial candidate Roy Moore (“Well, he denies it. Look, he denies it. . . . He says it didn’t happen. And, you know, you have to listen to him also. You’re talking about, he said 40 years ago this did not happen.”) and his Supreme Court nominee, now confirmed, Brett M. Kavanaugh (the allegations against him were “a hoax that was set up by the Democrats”).
In each case — Saudi Arabia, Russia, Moore, climate change, Kavanaugh — there is reason to believe, if to varying degrees, that the allegations have merit. Trump, though, seizes on any tiny argument to reject them.
Now contrast that with the other, far less important news story of Monday morning. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) released the results of a DNA test indicating the likelihood of Native American blood in her family heritage. This question of her ancestry had been lingering around Warren since her first Senate bid, when it was alleged that she had used that heritage to get ahead in her career. (That allegation is without merit, according to a lengthy Boston Globe investigation.)
As the 2020 presidential election has approached, Trump has increasingly disparaged Warren, a likely (if not probable) Democratic candidate. Among the assertions he had made is that Warren — who he disparagingly calls “Pocahontas” — should have to conduct a DNA test to prove her heritage. In July, he even offered to give $1 million to charity were she to do so.
When he learned Monday morning that she had, his response was curt: “Who cares?” He also denied having offered to give $1 million to charity, despite his saying it at a campaign rally. Such tests are questionable both technically and culturally, but the standard of proof was the one set by Trump. Then he dismissed it as unimportant.
We've seen this pattern before, too. While Trump picks up on the tiniest thread as absolution for his political allies, he sets his own standards of proof for his opponents.
The most famous example is the one that brought him to national political attention: His insistence that former president Barack Obama prove that he was born in the United States. Obama, preparing for his reelection in 2012, released his birth certificate in 2011, in part because of Trump’s focus on the issue. Trump’s response? To move the goal post, insisting that Obama then release his college transcripts and applications. The idea was that Obama had only gotten into elite Ivy League schools because he was a minority (mirroring the false allegations about Warren) or, perhaps, by claiming that he was from Africa.
Update: On Monday afternoon, he moved the goalposts on his pledge to donate to charity if Warren had a DNA test. It only counted, he now said, if he could “test her personally.” He added, "That will not be something I enjoy doing either.”
For Trump’s opponents, any offered proof is flawed, incomplete or insufficient. For his allies, any offered evidence is robust and more than enough.
Trump’s greatest ally, of course, is Donald Trump. Consider that question about how his business relationships with Saudi Arabian nationals might influence his decision-making. We have no idea what those relationships look like, because, among other things, Trump has refused to release his tax returns. This was, for decades, a standard part of the presidential nomination process, but Trump simply sidestepped it. His word that he had no conflicts was proof enough for his claims, in his eyes and, it seems, in the eyes of his supporters.
Politics is not an endeavor in which good faith and objectivity flourish. But Trump’s double standards on evidence depending on his views of the accused are stark even in that context.