At the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Riyadh agents allegedly kidnapped, killed and dismembered a dissident journalist who was writing for The Washington Post in exile. In China, the head of Interpol was abducted and imprisoned by authorities in Beijing while his wife was reportedly threatened with death back home in France.
And in the Netherlands, Dutch authorities last week expelled four Russians who were caught with espionage equipment as part of an alleged hacking operation at an Amsterdam hotel.
These and other brazen operations in recent months illustrate the hands-off posture taken by President Trump toward many authoritarian leaders — particularly those he views as allies or potential allies who have treated him kindly.
Even as the Trump administration issues harsh condemnations and vows of retaliation, the president has appeared hesitant — and at times even reluctant — to forcefully challenge the leaders of such countries accused of abuses. He has praised Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin as partners, dropped his previous criticism of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s human rights violations and has spoken approvingly of the harsh law enforcement tactics employed by Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte.
In the disappearance of Post Opinons contributor Kamal Khashoggi, Trump pledged Wednesday to seek answers from Saudi Arabia, but stopped short of threatening consequences if the prominent government critic has been harmed.
The president’s remarks were his strongest to date about the Khashoggi case, which has become a test of whether his approach has encouraged some dictators to commit audacious acts without fear of U.S. reprisals.
“We want to see what’s going on there,” Trump said when asked about Khashoggi, who went missing in Turkey on Oct. 2. “That’s a bad situation. Frankly, because it’s a reporter, you could say in many respects, it brings it to a level. It’s a very serious situation for us.”
The government of Turkey and members of Congress from both parties are demanding a full accounting of whether Khashoggi, a U.S. resident, was lured to the Saudi consulate in Isanbul to be killed. They are also calling on the Trump administration to impose consequences for Riyadh’s actions.
U.S. officials said Trump prefers quiet inquiries and pressure, when necessary, in dealing with partners and leaders he respects. He has said that he avoided public confrontation with Putin over the conclusions of U.S. intelligence agencies that Russia had interfered in the 2016 presidential election with the aim of helping Trump. The president resisted and delayed punitive sanctions against Russia in what his critics said was, at best, a naive attempt to forge better relations.
After threatening to “totally destroy” North Korea last year, Trump now refrains from using even the mild diplomatic term for his sanctions campaign, “maximum pressure,” in hopes of fostering talks with Kim.
Past presidents have also accommodated dictators and adjusted their rhetoric to serve what they judge to be U.S. interests. In the case of Saudi Arabia, both Republican and Democratic administrations have been accused of coddling the nation with the world’s largest oil reserves.
But Trump’s apparent willingness to look the other way at recent Saudi overreach in its war in Yemen — while also siding with the kingdom in its dispute with fellow U.S. ally Qatar — may have emboldened the kingdom to think that Trump would ignore a move against Khashoggi, human rights advocates and others said.
“President Trump’s response that, ‘I don’t really know much about it,’ is anemic,” said Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.), who helped lead a bipartisan letter urging Trump to “demand immediate answers from both Saudi Arabia and Turkey.”
“You get a daily intelligence briefing, and surely you have been briefed on the details,” Connolly said in an interview.
Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) said a state-sanctioned murder would “cross every line of normality in the international community” and “there would be hell to pay.”
The United States has limited authority to hold Saudi Arabia or other nations accountable for actions taken on foreign soil or against non-Americans. But Trump, like other U.S. presidents, holds great potential power over friendly nations by encouraging or discouraging certain behavior.
Trump told reporters Wednesday that he has spoken with Saudi Arabia “at the highest level,” although he did not give details. The White House and State Department later said that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, national security adviser John Bolton and Trump son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner have addressed the case with senior Saudi leaders.
“I’m not happy about it,” Trump said, adding that “we are demanding everything.”
It matters whether Trump himself does the asking or the shaming, said Sarah Sewall, who served as a top State Department official for human rights issues in the Obama administration.
“What’s so dispiriting is to see the president throwing away 70 years of accrued commitment, bipartisan commitment, to America promoting human rights and freedom in the world,” said Sewall, now a professor at Johns Hopkins University.
“We’ve always done it imperfectly, but under this administration there is . . . a reductionist view of the world where they either like you or not as a government, and if they like you the administration ignores or even praises what you do in contravention of international human rights standards.”
Trump’s approach does not treat all authoritarians the same. He is critical of the leaders of Iran, Venezuela and Cuba on human rights grounds, and has sought to impose sanctions and withdraw diplomatic engagement with each.
His administration has been especially critical of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, an anti-American leftist. On Wednesday, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders issued a harsh condemnation of the death of an opposition politician in that country.
State Department spokesman Robert Palladino said Washington is seeking answers in both that case and Khashoggi’s.
“That alarming detention does call for a thoroughly independent investigation free of the regime’s interference, and that tragedy highlights a continuing pattern of human rights abuses in that country, repression, and excessive use of force,” Palladino said of the arrest and death of Fernando Alban in Venezuela.
“In the case of what we’re talking about in Turkey, we’re calling for a full and transparent investigation to understand what’s transpired. We are trying to get to the bottom of it and we’re looking for answers.”
So far, the Trump administration seems to be asking Saudi Arabia to investigate itself, while not threatening consequences for the U.S. relationship, Connolly said.
“Every day that goes by where we just ‘tsk, tsk,’ is another day we say to the crown prince, “Don't worry about us,’ and that is exactly the wrong signal and the wrong response,” Connolly said.