In fielding questions from reporters about the killing of Washington Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi, President Trump avoided blaming Mohammed bin Salman, despite the CIA’s findings that the Saudi crown prince had ordered the assassination.
“Who should be held accountable?” a reporter asked Trump Thursday. Sitting inside his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida, the president took a deep breath, seemingly mulling his response.
Then he said: “Maybe the world should be held accountable, because the world is a vicious place.”
This line of thinking is not new for Trump. When confronted with questions about allegations of murderous acts and abuse of power lodged against autocratic leaders, he has often brushed them aside, even in the face of overwhelming evidence. Trump deflects by blaming other countries for also committing atrocious acts, or the United States for having “a lot of killers.” He condemns the world, but not the powerful people accused of making it “vicious” in the first place.
Last year, former Fox News host Bill O’Reilly pressed Trump about Vladimir Putin and accusations that the Russian president and his associates have killed journalists and dissidents in Russia.
“Putin is a killer,” O’Reilly said.
But Trump, who has refused to condemn Putin despite findings by U.S. intelligence officials that Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential elections, seemed unfazed.
“There are a lot of killers. We have a lot of killers. Well, you think our country is so innocent?” he said.
Trump had a similar exchange with Joe Scarborough in 2015.
“He kills journalists that don’t agree with him,” the “Morning Joe” host said of Putin.
“Well, I think that our country does plenty of killing, too, Joe,” Trump responded.
At least 34 journalists have been killed in Russia since 2000, according to PolitiFact, which combined data from two nonprofits that chronicle such incidents. Nina Ognianova of the Committee to Protect Journalists’s Europe and Central Asia program told PolitiFact that journalists can be “slain with impunity in Putin’s Russia,” where killers feel “emboldened to act” by an administration that marginalizes journalists. She acknowledged that there has been no evidence linking Putin to the deaths. Harley Balzer, a Georgetown University professor who specializes in Russian and Eastern European studies, said that Putin did not need to personally sign off on assassinations of Kremlin critics.
In his comments about Khashoggi’s killing Thursday, Trump seemed to defer to what he described as Mohammed’s vehement denials of his involvement and contradicted the CIA’s assessment that the direct order came from the crown prince himself.
He also seemed to suggest that all U.S. allies were guilty of the same behavior. If others were held to the same standard to which critics are holding Saudi Arabia, “we wouldn’t be able to have anyone for an ally,” Trump told reporters.
Trump treasures being an ally of Saudi Arabia because of the country’s role in fighting Iran, forging Israeli-Palestinian peace, defeating Islamist terrorism and, as the president has said repeatedly, the economic growth this partnership promises.
He also treasures being an ally of Russia: “If Russia helps us in the fight against ISIS . . . that’s a good thing,” he said last year, using another name for the Islamic State.
To put this all simply: There may have been atrocious acts, but however much blood has been spilled, it is not worth sacrificing the partnership for.
Trump has praised other autocratic leaders, including North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, whom the president declared to have developed “a very special bond” with after a summit in June. About a year before that, in April 2017, Trump told Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte that he’s “doing an unbelievable job” ridding the Southeast Asian country of its long-standing drug problem. Thousands of Filipinos have been killed since Duterte launched his bloody war against drugs.
Josh Dawsey contributed to this report.