Trump’s latest assault on the press corps comes amid his mounting domestic political problems as Democrats prepare to take over the House in January. Yet in his bid to assert greater control over the media at home, Trump threatens to undermine his administration’s efforts to curtail human rights abuses abroad.
In Singapore on Wednesday, Vice President Pence told Myanmar’s de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, to release two Reuters journalists jailed for covering brutal ethnic violence against the minority Rohingya Muslims. At the State Department, spokeswoman Heather Nauert called on Chinese leaders to respect “fundamental freedoms” amid a crackdown on political activism in Hong Kong.
Foreign-policy analysts say Trump’s persistent attacks on news outlets, combined with his embrace of authoritarian leaders such as Russian President Vladimir Putin and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, have emboldened repressive governments to ignore U.S. pressure.
“Obviously, we want to see more efforts by the U.S. to stand up for our values, but it’s hard to see the impact on a significant scale when we’re seen as hypocritical or when what we say is not supported by the actions of our president,” said Jeffrey Prescott, who served as a foreign policy aide in the Obama White House.
In 2013, Prescott accompanied Vice President Biden on a trip to Beijing during a period when China was denying visas to U.S. journalists over critical coverage of party leaders’ personal finances. Biden met with a group of reporters and raised their cases directly with President Xi Jinping.
Prescott pointed to surveys showing sharp drops in global confidence in U.S. leadership under Trump and said the president has unwisely discarded a tool of American influence.
“The disconnect between the rhetoric coming out of the White House and what other officials are saying around the world does make the statements land with less force,” Prescott said.
Pence is attending three Asia summits this week that Trump elected to skip, leaving a vacuum for Xi to promote China’s trade and security agenda. Beijing has made clear that it has no intention of lecturing other countries on human rights, and the Chinese government has undertaken a massive roundup of Uighur Muslims, with an estimated 1 million detained at “reeducation camps.”
Pence’s blunt words to Suu Kyi represent the strongest statement from the Trump administration against the atrocities that have driven more than 700,000 Rohingya Muslims from their homeland.
But Trump has not spoken publicly about Myanmar since taking office. And experts said Pence’s efforts to draw a line — and win the release of the two Reuters reporters sentenced to seven years in prison — will be diluted by Trump’s targeting of U.S. journalists, who he routinely calls the “enemy of the people.”
“It’s hypocritical,” said Erin Murphy, a consultant on Myanmar who accompanied Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on a trip to the country in 2012. “What happened to the Reuters journalists is terrible. Jim Acosta is not in jail — is that where the difference is?”
Suu Kyi and other top Myanmar officials have referred to stories about the violence, which the U.N. last year labeled “ethnic cleansing,” as “fake news” — echoing Trump’s rhetoric.
“If I were the Myanmar government or Aung San Suu Kyi,” Murphy said, “I would throw it back in Pence’s face.”
White House officials have countered criticism that Trump does not promote human rights by pointing to cases of individuals who have been freed under his watch, including three Americans detained in North Korea.
But the president’s reaction to the death of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi last month led to widespread recriminations. Trump initially cast doubt on evidence that The Washington Post columnist had been killed in a Saudi government-led assassination plot, becoming more critical only in the face of political blowback.
Trump has been more animated when he’s battling White House reporters. On Wednesday, he focused his animus on a lawsuit from CNN claiming that the White House’s treatment of Acosta was a violation of his constitutional rights. Several other media organizations, including The Post, agreed to support the lawsuit.
“Is it freedom of the press when somebody comes in and starts screaming questions and won’t sit down?” Trump said in an interview with the Daily Caller. “He’s just an average guy . . . who’s got the guts to stand up and shout.”
In Hong Kong, thousands stood up and shouted during protests in July against the Communist Party’s growing influence over the island, 21 years after the British relinquished control. The party has recently jailed several prominent dissidents.
Thomas Shannon, a longtime State Department official who served briefly as acting secretary of state last year, praised the Trump administration for speaking out about the abuses in Myanmar and Hong Kong.
He was hesitant to connect those statements to Trump’s rhetoric, which he said was rooted in campaign politics. But pointing to the Khashoggi case, Shannon, who retired in July, said the White House will learn that issues around press freedoms “cannot be ignored or pushed away.”
“I can understand the concerns that the president’s rhetoric and the way he has treated the press can sometimes appear to give succor to authoritarians elsewhere to do that,” Shannon said.
Acosta, he added, “hasn’t been arrested and sent to prison — yet.”